Wisconsin pedestrian deaths increased by 50 percent last year, report found

More than 7.5K pedestrians were killed across nation last year, according to preliminary data

Vehicles drive on West Fond du Lac Avenue at its intersection with West Congress Street in Milwaukee
Vehicles drive on West Fond du Lac Avenue at its intersection with West Congress Street on Sept. 14, 2022, in Milwaukee, Wis. West Fond du Lac Avenue doubles as State Highway 145 and contains several of the city’s most crash-prone intersections. On state highways, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation gets the final say on any plans to narrow lanes, add concrete bump-outs to protect pedestrians or add other traffic-calming infrastructure. The agency’s focus on smoothly flowing traffic complicates efforts to bolster safety in the neighborhoods that drivers speed through, according to city officials and grassroots advocates. Angela Major/WPR

Pedestrian deaths in Wisconsin increased by 50 percent from 2021 to 2022, according to preliminary data released in a new report.

That report, released last week by the Governors Highway Safety Association, found 7,508 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes across the nation in 2022, the highest number of pedestrian deaths since 1981. In Wisconsin, 75 pedestrians were killed last year, 25 more deaths than the previous year.

The report said dangerous driving, inadequate infrastructure and larger and heavier vehicles are contributing to an average of 20 pedestrians being killed each day.

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David Pabst, the director of transportation safety at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, called the increase in pedestrian fatalities “alarming.”

“As a community we have to be concerned with the number of deaths that we’re seeing,” Pabst said. “Everybody has a relative and just imagine if they were taken away, just because they were trying to cross the street.”

Pabst blamed the increase on reckless and aggressive driving, speeding and drivers not paying attention to the road.

“When people are speeding or not paying attention … they’re not able to slow down in time and pedestrians lose in that battle whenever they’re struck,” he said.

He believes the issue of reckless driving has also become worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as studies have shown that more drivers are engaging in risky behavior since that time. But Pabst said reckless driving isn’t only occurring in bigger cities, but across the whole state and nation as well.

“I do know that if we can get a cultural shift in Wisconsin so that people realize that pedestrians do have the right of way when they enter the intersection, that you need to stop and yield to them, it would go a long way to saving lives as well,” he said.

Robert Schneider, an urban planning professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has researched pedestrian and traffic safety, said the numbers were cause for concern.

“As unfortunate as the national trend is, a 50 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities is a serious problem,” Schneider said.

Schneider said he believes more pedestrian deaths are occurring on major roadways, where there are higher speeds and more travel lanes for pedestrians to cross.

“Pedestrian volumes may have actually increased on those corridors, because of shifts in where people are working, where they’re living,” he said.

Schneider also believes the increase in cell phone use and more vehicles having video dashboards can also lead to more accidents, putting pedestrians in danger.

“That is likely to have some impact on the ability of drivers to detect and stop for pedestrians in the street,” he said.

The Governors Highway Safety Association report also found in the last 10 years, the number of pedestrian deaths involving SUVs increased by 120 percent, while deaths involving passenger cars grew 26 percent.

“A general rule is the larger and heavier the vehicle, the lower the chances a person on foot will survive a crash,” the report said.

The issue is also growing in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city. Schneider said data from 2008 to 2012 revealed there were 11 pedestrian fatalities a year on average in Milwaukee. From 2018 to 2022, that number increased to 17 pedestrian deaths a year, a 56 percent increase. Five of the state’s nine deadliest roads are in Milwaukee as well, according to a 2022 study from the Milwaukee law firm Mingo and Yankala.

When it comes to remedies, Schneider believes improving roadway design, making roads more narrow and reducing pedestrian crossing distances will help. Reducing speed limits can also have a positive impact, he said.

“Speed underlies so much of what we see in terms of traffic safety risk, so reducing speed through the design of our system is very important,” Schneider said.

Pabst called on drivers to slow down and to pay attention.

“Speeding is a huge problem because the faster you go, the further you go before you can actually react,” he said. “You just need to slow down.”

But he also said pedestrians have to do their part as well, as he called on them to cross the street at well-lit areas and by using marked intersections. He also called on drivers or passengers in an accident to stay in their vehicle until help comes.

“If you’re ever stranded or broken-down, it’s better to remain in your vehicle and call for help, especially on the interstate,” he said.

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