DETROIT -- Count Paul Snyder among those who believe distraction, more than vehicles themselves, is responsible for the increase in pedestrian fatalities.
“I think the answer to it is really social patterns, you know, having very little to do with cars,” said Snyder, chair of the transportation design program at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies.
In the search for explanations for a dramatic rise in pedestrian deaths, Snyder is among those who believe that drivers or walkers not paying attention while in traffic, whether it is to glance at smartphones or elsewhere, are to blame. Pedestrian fatalities have risen 46 percent since 2009 while overall traffic deaths are only up 11 percent.
Snyder points to improvements that have made vehicles safer even when they strike pedestrians. The changes have included adding space under the hood to provide more cushion against the hard parts around the engine.
Automakers have also lowered bumpers on many vehicles so that in the event of a collision with a walker, they strike at leg level, not in a way that knocks a pedestrian up on a hood, though many pickups and SUVs have profiles high enough to strike average adults at chest level.
When it comes to distraction, the proliferation of the smartphone is central to the crisis. The Governors Highway Safety Association has noted that the number of active cellphones in use in the U.S. between 2010 and 2016 increased by 236 percent.
Distraction hard to prove
Distracted driving, however, is extremely difficult to track because most people will not admit to doing it, and crash data on the subject is believed to be incomplete.
But several indicators suggest it’s a full-blown crisis.
Reports of drivers using their phones to send and read text messages, check email or watch videos are not unusual, but all of those activities, when they happen behind the wheel, can be extremely risky.
Even touch-screen systems in many new vehicles pose problems, putting motorists at risk of crashes. A recent study funded by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, conducted by researchers at the University of Utah, examined 30 vehicle infotainment systems and found that all of them are distracting to some degree.
Distraction was "very high" on 12 of the systems, "high" on 11 and "moderate" on seven. None of the systems generated "low" distraction, according to the researchers.
Walkers with phones are at risk. Pedestrians with their eyes glued to their phones might walk into the street without checking for oncoming traffic.
U.S. emergency room visits blamed on phone use spiked 83.5 percent from 17,851 in 2007 — the year Apple introduced the iPhone — to 32,755 in 2016, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.
Watch the road
Ron Van Houten, a psychology professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, however, said texting or talking by themselves are not the problem.
"The issue that’s new is the people actually taking their eyes off the road to do things," said Van Houten, who has done extensive study on traffic and pedestrian safety. He said distraction and speed are likely factors in the increase in pedestrian deaths.
Van Houten has researched how high-visibility enforcement of traffic rules for drivers affected yielding to pedestrians in Gainesville, Florida. The study results released in 2013 and a follow-up effort released last year found that enforcement has a significant impact. The follow-up also found a "statistically significant decrease" in pedestrian crashes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently examining the effect of electronic device usage on pedestrian deaths. The agency has said that no studies show “a direct link between the behavioral effects of distraction and pedestrian crash risk.” Overall, though, NHTSA says motor vehicle crashes involving distraction lead to many deaths and injuries.
“My greatest concern is when both the pedestrian and the driver don’t see each other,” said Richard Retting, director of safety for Sam Schwartz Consulting, who conducted a study on pedestrian safety for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Who's to blame?
Susan Heck, a writer living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said she was recently driving down a neighborhood street when a teenager using his phone “stepped out right in front of me.”
“He was doing stuff on his phone,” she said. “If I had not stopped I would have hit him. The sad thing was he looked up at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you, lady?’ ”
That scenario raises questions about blame. Many drivers are quick to note the many times they have seen distracted pedestrians crossing streets with their eyes on the screens in their hands. That notion even prompted Ford to launch an ad campaign for its precollision assist feature with pedestrian detection for the 2017 Ford Fusion.
The campaign used the term "petextrians" to describe people who text and walk, and included comments from a Ford engineer noting how startled he and others have been "to see how oblivious people could be of a 4,000-pound car coming toward them." The campaign elicited outrage from pedestrian advocates who equated it to blaming the victim.
Van Houten, the Western Michigan professor, said context in vehicle/pedestrian interactions is crucial.
Drivers have a greater share of the responsibility than pedestrians because drivers are the ones operating a dangerous piece of equipment, Van Houten said.
Society, he said, already recognizes a difference, because not everyone is able to obtain a driver's license. Anyone who is physically able, however, can be a pedestrian, and no license is needed to cross a street.
“People just need to be more careful," Van Houten said, noting that drivers do not have a right to strike people with their vehicles. "You can't unload (the responsibility) to the pedestrian. (It's) not a fair trade."