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Pedestrian deaths decline, but 2017 was still 2nd-worst year in decades

Fewer pedestrians died in 2017 than the prior year, but despite the drop, the number of those killed walking on and along America's roads last year still ranked as the second-deadliest year for pedestrians in decades.

The decrease to 5,977 pedestrian deaths came as overall traffic fatalities also dropped for 2017 by 1.8 percent to 37,133, according to data released Wednesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but it also highlighted an ongoing public safety crisis.

The report follows a Detroit Free Press/USA Today Network investigation this year that found that SUVs have played an increasing role in the dramatic spike in pedestrian deaths in recent years. The number of pedestrian fatalities that NHTSA listed for 2016 was higher in the fatal crash numbers released Wednesday, at 6,080, than what the government listed previously, which was 5,987, but that also means that 2016's increase represented an even higher spike than previously thought.

The annual report did not provide an in-depth look at the causes of pedestrian fatalities, which will likely come later. But officials did note that a one-year decline for traffic fatalities does not represent a trend.

The percentage of crash fatalities involving pedestrians also had increased in recent years, and the report, while not isolating pedestrians, showed that "the proportion of people killed 'outside the vehicle' (motorcyclists, pedestrians, pedalcyclists, and other nonoccupants) increased from a low of 20 percent in 1996 to a high of 33 percent in 2017."

NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King, during a conference call, did offer some general examples of the types of issues officials feel contribute to pedestrian fatalities. She did not, however, weigh in on whether the increase in the popularity of SUVs, with their higher and often blunter front ends, could be a factor in the crisis.

"When it comes to machines and human beings acting together especially in mixed traffic and in urban areas, which is where we’re seeing these increases in … we believe that there are many solutions and some solutions are more effective in some settings than in others," King said, highlighting vehicle safety features such as automatic emergency braking, improved lighting and highway design.

USA TODAY reported last week that the National Transportation Safety Board had recommended better headlights to protect pedestrians.

King also suggested that alcohol use can be a factor in the overall problem. King said that in addition to crossing in crosswalks and in well-lit areast individuals should "walk sober as well as to drive sober because impaired judgment in mixed traffic is always dangerous."

The Detroit Free Press/USA Today investigation did note that alcohol use is a factor in many crashes, but found that it does not explain the dramatic increase in pedestrian fatalities. Data on distraction, another likely factor, is believed to be incomplete because of underreporting.

King said NHTSA has been gathering input on possible updates to the New Car Assessment Program, which rates vehicle safety and could include pedestrian safety ratings.

“We are open to any and all ideas that helps us get these deaths to zero because we don’t want to continue to see any increases, and we understand the importance of managing transportation options for mobility and safety for everyone in our community,” King said.

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