After reaching a five-year-high in 2022, pedestrian deaths declined by 18 percent last year, according to preliminary data released by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
David Pabst, director of DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Safety, said this is “really encouraging.”
“My hope is that people are heeding a lot of our safety messages and they’re paying attention to what they’re doing,” Pabst said. “After (the pandemic), we had a lot of extra dangerous driving behavior, and maybe that’s settled down and people have gotten out of their system.”
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Pabst said he hopes the numbers will continue to fall as roadways and vehicles are better designed.
Pedestrian deaths fell in 2023 compared to the previous year
In 2022, 72 pedestrians were killed in 1,324 crashes between vehicles and walkers, according to the Wisconsin DOT. That followed a national trend, with pedestrian deaths reaching a 40-year high, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Last year in Wisconsin, the number of pedestrian deaths fell to 59.
Pabst said it’s too early to definitively explain the decrease between the two years. He hopes it’s because drivers and pedestrians are changing their behavior.
“We pay for advertising that talks about driving safely,” Pabst said. “We put (in) a lot of extra effort, whether it’s education or enforcement.”
Andrea Bill, the associate director of the Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin Madison, studies transportation. Bill said there is an uptick in the number of people walking and biking, which is a good thing, but it comes with responsibility.
“We need to have the balance of the drivers understanding about sharing the road and understanding it’s not so vehicle-centric anymore,” Bill said.
She said low visibility of pedestrians, impaired driving and walking and speeding are three main contributing factors to pedestrian fatalities. Distraction, both on the part of the driver and the pedestrian, is another concern.
“When you’re walking or biking or driving, you should be focused on the activity that you’re doing, not what’s on your phone or anything else,” Bill said.
Pabst agreed and added that instead of looking at, holding and thinking about their phones, drivers and pedestrians should be looking at and thinking about the road.
And there are more SUVs and light trucks on the road, according to the governor’s report. Larger vehicles are inherently more dangerous to pedestrians due to their weight and size.
“When you get hit by the blunt end of a truck or an SUV, you’re getting hit pretty square, but a car rides lower. And so when you get hit, your body rolls forward,” Pabst said.
Milwaukee has the highest pedestrian deaths
The number of pedestrian fatalities in Milwaukee was significantly higher than in any other county, at 21 deaths last year, according to the preliminary data from the DOT.
Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman said this is very concerning to him and the leadership in the city.
“It really ties in with the overarching problem we’re seeing with reckless driving. Basically wholesale disregard of the rules of the road traffic regulations, which are there to protect people,” Bauman said.
While pedestrian crashes have decreased since the mid-1990s, pedestrian deaths have increased in recent years, according to a 2023 report from the City of Milwaukee.
The report found damages from four high crash intersections in Milwaukee cost the city more than $63 million.
Bauman said reckless driving is a behavior problem. He said drivers are ignoring traffic infrastructure like speed limits, red lights and double yellow lines.
He sees two solutions — increasing law enforcement or reengineering roadways. He is concerned the former will introduce other issues like racial profiling, and said he supports the city as it adds more speed bumps, roundabouts and raised crosswalks.
He said this will intentionally increase road congestion, but the trade-off is worth it.
The city pledged to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2037.
Bauman said with the advancement of technology, including autonomous vehicles, the goal is within reach.
DOT will continue to reengineer roadways
Other cities across the state have their own campaigns to improve pedestrian safety, like Madison’s 20 is Plenty initiative.
Bill said it will take everyone to keep pedestrian deaths low.
“It’s not just always the pedestrian, not always just the drivers. It is really that system approach. And if we can improve the system in general, we will keep reducing pedestrian fatalities,” Bill said.
Examples include redesigning roadways, improving technology in cars like automatic braking, and bolstering education about impaired walking and driving are the best ways to keep the roads safe.
“When a car hits the pedestrian, the pedestrian always loses,” Pabst said. “It’s just so important for everyone that’s driving a car to pay attention, obey the laws slow down, right? But pedestrians have to do their part as well.”
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