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Cell phones, marijuana blamed for increase in pedestrian deaths

LAS VEGAS - Pedestrian deaths in traffic accidents are up sharply in Las Vegas and other cities.  One safety group believes digital distractions and retail marijuana are at least partly to blame for the increase.

The study, released Wednesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association, estimates that 5,984 pedestrians were killed across the United States in 2017.  That represents an increase for the third year in a row.

"It's downright disturbing," said Richard Retting, who authored the report for GHSA.  "People outside cars are dying at levels we haven't seen in 25 years."

In Clark County, a record 78 pedestrians were killed by vehicles in 2017.  That is a 27% increase from 2016, when 57 people were hit and killed in the county.  Overall, Nevada had the sixth-highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the nation.

The rise in auto-pedestrian fatalities comes at a time when automobile safety is improving and overall traffic deaths are lower.

Pedestrian deaths are far higher than a decade ago, both in sheer numbers and as a share of traffic fatalities.  Last year, pedestrian deaths represented 16% of all traffic fatalities, compared to 11% the year before.

The study's authors admit many factors cause traffic deaths, including an increase in driving and congestion on the nation's roads.  The number of miles driven and the number of walking trips that people take have increased.  However, this year the group also called attention to the number of states that legalized retail pot.

In the seven states that legalized the drug for recreational purposes, as well as the District of Columbia, pedestrian deaths spiked 16.4% in the first half of 2017, according to the GHSA study. Deaths in other states during that same time fell 5.8%. 

"We're not making a definitive link here," Retting said, "But it's a source of concern and we think greater attention needs to be paid fo this issue.

The study also showed 75% of pedestrian fatalities occur at night, and pointed to smartphones as a major contributor of crashes, both for drivers and pedestrians.

In 2011, the RTC, Nevada Department of Transportation, and other groups joined forces on the "Zero Fatalities" campaign to reduce pedestrian fatalities.  The coalition lists several tips for drivers to avoid people walking on the road:

  • Drive alert.  Look for pedestrians - expect to see them at corners and marked mid-block crossings and stop for them when they cross the street.
  • Don't pass stopped cars.  Don't pass a car stopped for pedestrians - it's against the law, and it's highly dangerous for those cross the street.
  • Slow down.  The faster you're going, the longer it takes to react and brake.  Slow down when you're in an area where pedestrians are likely to be.
  • Follow signs and signals.  Stop on red, look right before turning on green, and follow other traffic signals to ensure the safety of cross pedestrians.
  • Avoid distractions.  The text/call/tweet can wait.  Don't let your phone or anything else distract you from focusing on the road and those around you.
  • Drive sober.  Don't risk getting behind the wheel when impaired - for your own safety and the safety of other drivers and pedestrians.

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