I came upon the scene of a crash investigation yesterday afternoon in my hometown of Herndon, Va. A mother and two children were hit by a 20-year-old motorist making a right turn at an intersection. I did not see the crash, but I strongly suspect the motorist was looking left to anticipate oncoming traffic and never noticed the pedestrians preparing to step off the curb to her right.
It was strangely reassuring to see the magnitude of official response in the form of nearly 10 police vehicles, not including three motorcycle riding officers, along with a circling helicopter (most likely from a local broadcaster) and on-the-ground camera crews recording the investigation. The mother and her children, though injured, were expected to survive the incident. The police reported that neither speed nor alcohol were thought to be involved.
I briefly joined onlookers crowding the intersection to see what was going on. The event highlighted the fact that pedestrian fatalities spiked in 2015 – rising 10% to 5,376 from 4,910 in 2014. A third of all highway fatalities in the U.S. occur at intersections, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and pedestrians account for 15% of all fatalities.
Regulators, researchers and observers had been clucking over the steady decline totaling 28% in pedestrian fatalities from 1975 to 2009, but 2015’s total is 31% higher than the lowest point of pedestrian fatalities in 2009. In October, the Fairfax County Virginia police published an analysis of pedestrian crashes noting that the Herndon/Reston area was one of the safest in the county.
Fairfax County pedestrian crash data analysis – Jan. 1, 2011 and July 28, 2016
In the words of one published report: “The Traffic Division Crime Analyst identified 11 areas where there has been a higher incidence of pedestrian fatal or serious injury crashes over that period, and none of them are anywhere near the Reston or Herndon areas.”
Those findings are cold comfort for one mother and her children this Christmas. The intense police response and the attention of passers-by suggested that pedestrian crashes and fatalities are something of a novelty and worthy of close scrutiny. The reality is that the novelty is wearing off and pedestrian fatalities are on the rise… and it is an unexplained rise.
Cars and their drivers need better situational awareness. As hostile as some car enthusiasts are to self-driving cars, at least self-driving cars are equipped with camera, radar and in some instances LiDAR systems that are capable of detecting objects in blind spots – including pedestrians and bicyclists.
Right turn blindness to pedestrians on the right side of the car – on or off the curb – is a common enough occurrence worthy of a safety system mandate be it a camera or short-range radar or both. Analysis of traffic and crash data seems to lull us all into a false sense of security, not just residents of the Herndon/Reston area of Fairfax County, Va. We have not solved the rising toll of highway fatalities and pedestrians are especially vulnerable and available in volume during the holidays. Drive carefully.