Washoe County Struggles with Spike in Pedestrian Car Accidents

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Parents have always lived in fear of harm befalling their children, but it seems that modern life in America brings with it a depressingly long list of potential perils. From the toxic “brave new world” of social media to the perennial problem of schoolyard bullies, the social landscape seems fraught. Sports injuries, school shootings, and the widening awareness of sexual harassment and abuse are all additional sources of worry for parents of school-age children. Yet another cause for fear: pedestrian car accidents en route to or from school.

In a recent interview a safety official with the Washoe County School District (WCSD), which encompasses Nevada’s northwest county that stretches from the north shore of Lake Tahoe (i.e., the city of Incline Village) to the Oregon border, admitted that a “catastrophic” number of WCSD students have been hurt this year in pedestrian auto accidents. MJ Cloud, a former police officer who now works as the WCSD’s coordinator of the Safe Routes to School program, said that 25 WCSD students have been hit by a vehicle in a pedestrian car accident this year. [1]

Data from years past indicate that students have always faced some risk of pedestrian car accidents, but the figures were on the order of five to ten incidents per year. In the current school year, which is shortly beyond its halfway point, the figure is more than three times that many and includes one death. [2] (We previously reported on the hit-and-run pedestrian car accident that claimed the life of a Wooster High School student in Reno.) Given the explosive population growth in Reno, Sparks, and the surrounding areas, this increase in pedestrian accidents is indeed a troubling trend to observe.

Cloud explains that her own son was involved in a pedestrian car accident in Reno when he was walking in a crosswalk from one school to another. He tried to catch the eye of the driver, who operated a large truck, but the vehicle kept coasting toward him and struck him. The boy and the driver exchanged “thumbs up” signs and moved on, leading Cloud to conclude that social barriers may depress reporting on pedestrian car accidents and conceal the fact that the problem is greater than even the staggering reported figures may suggest. [3]

Pedestrian Car Accidents on the Rise

Pedestrian deaths declined steadily from their deadliest levels in 1990 through 2009. But since 2009 the figures have been rising almost every year, with some 6,500 pedestrians killed in 2018 alongside nearly 900 cyclists. [4] Two consumer trends may be behind the worsening fortunes of pedestrians. Americans have continued buying SUVs and light trucks that place the driver high off the ground and reduce visibility directly in front of the vehicle, making it easier to overlook a person in a crosswalk and thereby to cause a pedestrian car accident. [5] While the Great Recession put a damper on the trend for a short time, once the economy began to recover and gas prices stayed low, Americans’ preferences for big vehicles came roaring back. [6]

Additionally, this same period has seen the placement of a smartphone in virtually every American adult’s hands – both drivers and pedestrians alike. The iPhone debuted in 2007, and current estimates are that 96 percent of Americans now have a mobile phone of some kind:

  • Percentage of U.S. adults with a smartphone: 81 percent
  • Percentage of U.S. adults age 18-29 with a smartphone: 96 percent
  • Percentage of U.S. adults with a non-smartphone cell phone: 15 percent
  • Percentage of U.S. adults age 18-29 with a non-smartphone cell phone: 4 percent [7]

Many drivers still have not trained themselves to resist the blue-screen allure of constant social media updates and text-message rapport, even while driving. While many drivers are distracted with their phones, many pedestrians are also guilty of texting and walking – i.e., twalking [8] – and thus place themselves at increased risk of pedestrian car accident.

Benson & Bingham

Given these trends, it is perhaps unsurprising that WCSD has seen more Reno and Sparks pedestrian vs car accidents. As the anecdote of Cloud’s son indicates, miscommunications between the walking and driving parties can result in pedestrian car accidents. Additionally, the increased likelihood that a pedestrian will himself be distracted makes it more likely that he will be struck while crossing the street. And the continued scourge of distracted driving makes the risk of pedestrian car accidents dangerously high.

While Cloud did not break down the demographics of these student-involved pedestrian car accidents, it may be that many of them involve teens. Teen pedestrians are, of course, even more likely to have smartphones than their primary-school counterparts, exacerbating the risks of walking and texting alluded to above. Further, teens are more likely to be swept up in the social-media and texting distractions that mobile devices can bring. Adding to this is that their peers may be behind the wheel, as well. More than 300,000 teens are hospitalized each year from car crashes, and nearly 2,400 die each year in automobile accidents. Teens are overrepresented in these somber statistics by a good measure relative to their share of the overall population. [9] The combination of distracted teens walking with smartphones and distracted teens driving with smartphones presents a stunningly obvious risk of pedestrian car accidents. As the experience in WCSD indicates, changes to our policy, infrastructure, and personal habits are all essential if we are to cut down on the increasing trend of pedestrian car accidents.

[1] https://www.kunr.org/post/25-washoe-students-hit-vehicles-school-year#stream/0

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/us/pedestrian-cyclist-deaths-traffic.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://www.topspeed.com/cars/car-news/car-infographics-2015-auto-industry-from-recession-to-recovery-to-record-sales-ar172351.html

[7] https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/13/technology/personaltech/distracted-walking-twalking.html

[9] https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/teen_drivers/teendrivers_factsheet.html

Benson and Bingham