WASHINGTON — Pedestrian fatalities increased 11 percent last year for the largest surge in 40 years, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA).
Pedestrian accidents also account for a growing share of motorcoach incidents and insurance claims, industry insurers say.
“We are seeing an uptick in pedestrian hits,” said Michelle A. Wiltgen, assistant vice president and national marketing manager at National Interstate Insurance Company in Richfield, Ohio.
“The numbers aren’t significant but the cost is. The bodily injury claim from a bus hitting a pedestrian is huge,” Wiltgen said. “The actual numbers of pedestrian hits are not significantly up, but we are looking at the dollar amounts on these claims. We are talking about six figures when a pedestrian is involved.”
Lancer Insurance Company in Long Beach, N.Y., paints a similar picture.
Bob Crescenzo, vice president of safety and loss control at Lancer, said that over the past five years, pedestrian and bicycle accidents have accounted for only about 1.5 percent of frequency, or the number of claims.
“But they are about 11 percent of our severity — the cost of claims,” Crescenzo said.
The pedestrian and bicyclist share of Lancer’s claims ledger has been growing by about 1 percent annually, he said, adding that “people are much more expensive to repair than vehicles.”
Final statistics for 2016 will list nearly 6,000 pedestrian traffic fatalities, an increase of 11 percent from 2015 — which recorded an 11-percent increase over 2014 — GHSA reported.
That total “could make 2016 the first year in more than two decades with more than 6,000 pedestrian deaths,” the agency said.
“Many factors contribute to changes in the number of pedestrian fatalities, including economic conditions, demographics, weather, fuel prices, vehicle miles traveled and the amount of time people spend walking,” said GHSA, a safety advocacy and lobbying organization representing state highway safety offices.
Motor vehicle miles traveled increased 3.3 percent last year, the report said.
A more recent contributing factor to the rise in pedestrian accidents may be the growing use of smart phones to access wireless data while walking and driving, GHSA said.
That is one factor the motorcoach industry is seeing — more pedestrians who aren’t aware of the traffic around them.
“People are looking down at their phones. They have headphones on. They are not paying any attention,” Wiltgen said.
Both National Interstate and Lancer have investigated accidents involving pedestrians who stepped off sidewalks into the sides of stopped buses.
The companies also are seeing increases in collisions involving bicyclists.
“Pedestrians are more prevalent,” Crescenzo said. “There are bicycle rental programs in a lot of cities. There is more access to pedestrian accommodations and bicycle trails. When people leave those areas, perhaps there is a false sense of protection.”
Although motorcoach drivers are trained to watch for people, there is only so much they can do to avoid inattentive pedestrians. And most of their driving is in high-risk environments.
“There are sporting events, music events, parking lots at destinations,” Crescenzo said. “The way buses are lined up at a destination may contribute to a pedestrian hit. When a driver is taking a group to a destination, he should scope out the parking challenges — where boarding and alighting is done.
“We have had situations where a bus pulls up to a museum parking area with middle-school kids. The doors opens, the kids run off through the parking lot and one is hit by a car. What is the liability there? There may be liability if the bus is parked in an unsafe place or there is not management of passengers.”
Busy urban intersections are another danger zone, Crescenzo said.
“The light will change and people will start walking between vehicles. If you haven’t checked your mirrors, people may be around the bus. It is very important that there is a full view and the driver is aware of blind spots around the bus.
“The other thing is the swing of the bus — being aware of the rear swing on a turn is critical,” he said.
Back-up cameras are valuable tools for avoiding accidents, Wiltgen said. The 2014 NHTSA data show that the back of the vehicle struck 5.5 percent of pedestrians killed in bus accidents. About 1.3 percent of auto/pedestrian fatalities resulted from rear impacts.
Event data recorders and cameras can prove a driver was not at fault in a pedestrian incident, she said.
“We had a kid run out from between parked cars — he was wearing dark clothes and there is nothing the driver could have done. Without the video that would not have been so evident.
“In a lot of situations event recorders are the only defense that operators have,” Wiltgen said. “We have a subsidy program to help our customers defray the cost of that equipment.”
A fatal 2013 collision proved the value of data recording for a Lancer policyholder. A man who turned out to be highly intoxicated dashed in front of a motorcoach. The recorder confirmed that the driver was operating at the speed limit then braked and swerved as the man entered the street.
“The quick response of the coach driver and her company, together with the efforts of Lancer’s claims professionals, prevented litigation and resulted in no claim payments,” the company told customers in a safety newsletter.
Lancer has advised its policyholders that it is important to identify and be aware of their surroundings, especially where large groups of people congregate.
There is a common error in accidents involving pedestrians, Crescenzo said: “Assuming the pedestrian will yield to the bus. Clearly, that is not a prudent assumption.”
He listed three issues bus and coach drivers must remember:
- The size and weight of the vehicle requires that additional time must be allotted for every driving maneuver.
- Every professional driver should be trained to recognize that pedestrians often fail to yield to buses.
- Prior to entering a left or right turn, controlled intersection or not, the driver must anticipate if the coach will be able to complete the turn in a safe, timely manner. If there is any doubt as to the proper completion of the turn, the driver should wait until the turn can be safely completed.