Pedestrian Deaths Spike in U.S. as Reckless Driving Surges

ALBUQUERQUE — After a festive evening spent viewing a display of holiday lights, Aditya Bhattacharya and his family were crossing a street to head home.

Then a driver blew past a red light, slamming into him and his 7-year-old son, Pronoy.

“I took one step, that’s the last thing I remember,” said Mr. Bhattacharya, 45. “When I regained consciousness, all I could hear was my wife sitting on the sidewalk, screaming, ‘Pronoy’s dead.’”

The boy’s death at an Albuquerque crosswalk in December, and the seven-week manhunt to find the driver, jolted many people in this part of the West to the grim count of pedestrian deaths, which began surging in New Mexico and other states in 2020.

Two years into the pandemic, such fatalities are soaring into record territory amid a nationwide flare-up in reckless driving. In various initiatives to reverse the trends, authorities in one state after another are citing factors from the rise in anxiety levels and pandemic drinking to the fraying of social norms.

Last year, New Mexico recorded 99 pedestrian deaths, up from 81 in 2020 and 83 in 2019 and the most since it began tracking such incidents in the 1990s. But while Sun Belt states have been hit particularly hard, the pedestrian death toll spiked last year in many parts of the country.

Pronoy’s mother, Deepshikha Nag Chowdhury, and one of her younger sons at their home in Albuquerque. Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

New Jersey had its highest number of pedestrian fatalities in more than 30 years. Last year was also the deadliest on Utah’s roads since the start of the century, as pedestrian deaths rose 22 percent. Washington State ended 2021 with a 15-year high in traffic fatalities. And pedestrian deaths in Texas climbed last year to a record high.

Going into the pandemic, some traffic specialists were optimistic that pedestrian deaths would decline. After all, millions of motorists were slashing their driving time and hewing to social distancing measures.

The opposite happened.

Empty roads allowed some to drive much faster than before. Some police chiefs eased enforcement, wary of face-to-face contact. For reasons that psychologists and transit safety experts are just beginning to explain, drivers also seemed to get angrier.

Dr. David Spiegel, director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, said many drivers were grappling with what he calls “salience saturation.”

“We’re so saturated with fears about the virus and what it’s going to do,” Dr. Spiegel said. “People feel that they get a pass on other threats.”

Dr. Spiegel said another factor was “social disengagement,” which deprives people of social contact, a major source of pleasure, support and comfort. Combine that loss with overloading our capacity to gauge risks, Dr. Spiegel said, and people are not paying as much attention to driving safely.

“If they do, they don’t care about it that much,” Dr. Spiegel said. “There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.”

A traffic sign on Coal Avenue in Albuquerque. A pedestrian was struck and killed in December at the intersection of Coal and Tulane Drive by a suspected drunk driver who fled the scene.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

Crashes killed more than 6,700 pedestrians in 2020, up about 5 percent from the estimated 6,412 the year before, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Based on another commonly used road safety metric — vehicle miles traveled — the group projected that the pedestrian fatality rate spiked about 21 percent in 2020 as deaths climbed sharply even though people drove much less that year, the largest ever year-over-year increase. And preliminary data from 2021 indicates yet another increase in the number of pedestrian deaths.

While other developed countries have made strides in reducing pedestrian deaths over the last several years, the pandemic has intensified several trends that have pushed the United States in the other direction. Crashes killing pedestrians climbed 46 percent over the last decade, compared with a 5 percent increase for all other crashes, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Angie Schmitt, who describes pedestrian deaths as a “silent epidemic” in a new book, said the reasons included an aging population, in which older pedestrians are more vulnerable, and the growth of the Sun Belt region, where cities were designed after World War II to prioritize speed over safety. And ballooning sizes of S.U.V.s and trucks, which have grown heavier with higher front ends, strike people on foot with greater force than before.

Following decades in which traffic fatalities declined in the United States, Ms. Schmitt noted that such deaths began climbing in 2009, when smaller sedans still accounted for most vehicles sold.

“Now, about three out of four new vehicles are pickup trucks, vans or S.U.V.s,” Ms. Schmitt said. “Cars are getting bigger, faster and deadlier.”

Others warn that since new vehicles have grown larger and safer for the people inside them, with features like lane-departure warnings and rearview cameras, some drivers are emboldened to dismiss the risks to pedestrians.

More than 6,700 pedestrians were killed in crashes in 2020.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

“There’s a portion of the population that is incredibly frustrated, enraged, and some of that behavior shows up in their driving,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. “We in our vehicles are given anonymity in this giant metal box around us, and we act out in ways that we wouldn’t face to face.”

The streets of Albuquerque, where Pronoy Bhattacharya was killed in the hit-and-run, showcase the challenges that pedestrians face. Around the sprawling metro area, home to almost one million people, drivers routinely run red lights or speed past stop signs. Cars without license plates abound on Albuquerque’s roads.

Despite such behavior, residents say they can go years without seeing drivers pulled over for violations of any kind. After the boy’s death, readers flooded The Albuquerque Journal with emails assailing local authorities after having witnessed lawless driving on a daily basis.

Steve Schackley, 72, said he had not seen more than a couple of traffic stops during the 16 years he has been in the city. “People do what they want when there’s almost no enforcement,” said Mr. Shackley, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Aggressive drivers occasionally get caught. In October, the police arrested a 26-year-old man who was reportedly intoxicated, carrying a handgun and driving at a speed of 140 miles per hour on one of the city’s main avenues.

Street racing is another problem. When a woman was arrested in 2020 after killing a pedestrian on Central Avenue, her boyfriend told officers they were racing home in separate vehicles, “a game in their relationship,” according to a court filing. In another recent tragedy, sheriff’s deputies said the driver of a Ford pickup truck was street racing at 90 miles per hour when he slammed into a car pulling out of a Roman Catholic abbey, killing a 35-year-old priest.

Across the country, overall traffic fatalities — not just crashes killing pedestrians — are also rising at a record pace. Nearly 32,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes in the first nine months of 2021, a 12 percent increase from the same period in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It was the highest number of fatalities during the first nine months of any year since 2006 and the highest percentage increase during the first nine months in the reporting system’s history.

In the crash that killed Pronoy, the driver was at the helm of an all-terrain vehicle. Such vehicles are illegal on Albuquerque streets but are still commonly seen around the city. Video footage showed the driver, Sergio Almanza, drinking at a bar before the crash.

Pronoy’s mother, Dr. Deepshikha Nag Chowdhury, a gastroenterologist at an Albuquerque hospital, publicly pleaded with authorities to find the driver in the weeks that followed.After fleeing the scene and going into hiding, Mr. Almanza surrendered to U.S. Marshals on Jan. 31.

Mr. Bhattacharya, who immigrated to the United States from India two decades ago, suffered a facial fracture in addition to losing his son. He said the crash had also shattered some of his long-held views.

“It’s ironic that I told so many friends how crossing the street was so safe in the United States compared with India,” said Mr. Bhattacharya, who works in information technology. “I always thought we’d be safer here.”

A portrait of Pronoy Bhattacharya on a table in his family’s home.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times
Aditya Bhattacharya suffered a facial fracture in the crash that took his son’s life.Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

Albuquerque’s police chief, Harold Medina, was blunt in assessing the situation. With the department also facing a surge in homicides and an increase in armed robbery cases, he contended resources and personnel were spread thin at a time when tempers were flaring.

“We’re seeing erratic behavior in the way people are acting and their patience levels,” Chief Medina said in an interview. “Everybody’s been pushed. This is one of the most stressful times in memory.”

In addition to more aggressive driving, Chief Medina cited an increase in drunken driving and a growing homeless population as other factors, explaining that some pedestrians killed in the city were living on the street.

Still, Chief Medina insisted the situation was changing. Following Pronoy’s death, he said the department was bolstering enforcement, issuing more than 4,600 traffic citations in January compared with about 3,450 the same month a year ago.

Ava Montoya, a spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller, said Albuquerque was improving traffic enforcement and initiating several measures, including improved lighting and the use of mobile speed enforcement devices and radar-equipped speed vans.

Still, while leaders in Albuquerque and other cities seek fixes, others following pedestrian fatalities around the country are expressing alarm over the endurance of pandemic-related factors.

Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, said that such emotions partly reflected “two years of having to stop ourselves from doing things that we’d like to do.”

“We’re all a bit at the end of our rope on things,” Dr. Markman said. “When you get angry in the car, it generates energy — and how do you dissipate that energy? Well, one way is to put your foot down a little bit more on the accelerator.”

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