Health experts say that walking — the oldest form of transportation — can improve fitness, help ward off disease and boost your mood.

But the statistics suggest that going for a walk is increasingly becoming more deadly.

Over the past decade, pedestrian deaths in the United States jumped by more than 50%. Last year was the deadliest in three decades with an estimated 6,590 people on foot killed, according to an analysis of traffic fatalities by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA).

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) noticed the upward trend, too — leading the agency to proclaim October as the first-ever National Pedestrian Safety Month.

“Nobody should die whether walking to work, school, running errands or just for fun,” NHTSA’s Nanda Srinivasan said in a speech to kick off the campaign.

Pedestrian deaths dropped for 30 straight years from 1989 to 2009, hitting a low of 4,100. Since then, “There has been a complete reversal of progress,” said Richard Retting, who wrote GHSA’s report.

Why the alarming swing occurred is still unclear. The GHSA offers several possibilities, including motorists who are speeding, distracted or drowsy. Americans are driving bigger cars, which pose a bigger risk to those on foot. Alcohol or drug impairment on the part of the driver or pedestrian was a factor in nearly 50% of crashes in 2018 in which a pedestrian died, the report found.

And more people are walking after dark, when they are harder to see. From September through November, more than 50% of pedestrian fatalities occur between 6 p.m. and midnight, the NHTSA said.

Drive reader Colleen wondered how many pedestrian deaths would be averted if walkers followed the rules of the road.

“I live in a suburban neighborhood which doesn’t have sidewalks on many of the streets,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Every day I encounter people walking on the incorrect side of the street, walking in the same direction as vehicle traffic (right side) rather than walking on the side facing traffic (left side). I get especially troubled by those walking with young children and/or pushing strollers. They can’t see what may be coming toward them. I wonder how many such deaths there are each year?”

The data don’t specifically answer that question, but the GHSA’s analysis found a majority of pedestrian deaths take place on local roads, at night and away from intersections. More than 90% of pedestrians hit were struck by the front of the vehicles, NHTSA data show.

In the absence of a sidewalk, the NHTSA says pedestrians should walk facing traffic and as far from it as possible. The National Safety Council tells pedestrians to wear bright clothing during the day and be clad in reflective materials at night, or use a flashlight.

Motorists need to watch for pedestrians at all times in all places, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said. Additionally, motorists should scan the road and sides of the road ahead for pedestrians, avoid distracted and aggressive driving, and never pass or drive around a vehicle stopped for pedestrians.

Perhaps the best advice comes from Nicole Nason of the Federal Highway Administration.

“Collaboration is key to get to zero deaths,” she said. “Let’s commit to doing our part, not just in October but in the months and years to come.”

 

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.