What's to blame for a COVID-era increase in pedestrian deaths?

Pedestrian prepared to cross street.
(Image credit: olaser/iStock.)

Just about two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. is contending with record levels of pedestrian deaths thanks to a "nationwide flare-up in reckless driving," The New York Times reports. Authorities blame things like rising anxiety levels, pandemic drinking habits, and weakening social norms for the surge.

While the rise in deaths has hit Sun Belt states "particularly hard," the "pedestrian death toll spiked last year in many parts of the country," the Times writes.

And though traffic specialists expected deaths to decline when COVID hit, the opposite occured; even with a drop in driving, the pedestrian fatality rate surged approximately 21 percent in 2020, "the largest ever year-over-year increase," per the Times.

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Why? Well, initially, empty roads may have led to faster driving, while police relaxed enforcement to cut back on in-person interactions. Drivers also seemed to get angrier, writes the Times, perhaps because the pandemic made them feel like other threats weren't nearly as large. COVID also "intensified" certain trends with which the U.S. was already dealing, including an aging population (where older pedestrians are more vulnerable) and an increase in car size and weight.

"Cars are getting bigger, faster and deadlier," said journalist and author Angie Schmitt.

Others say that since cars have grown safer for those who drive them, what with features like backup cameras, "some drivers are emboldened to dismiss the risks to pedestrians," notes the Times.

Not to mention that, after all of this, people are just plain fed up, cognitive scientist Art Markman added.

"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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