According to a recent study, distracted drivers were to blame for an increasing share of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities from 2005 to 2010, even as overall traffic fatalities went down.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center used data from the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System to identify pedestrian and bicycle fatalities that involved distracted driving. Pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for approximately 1 of every 10 deaths from distracted driving.

Over the period covered by the study, the rate of fatalities increased for both pedestrians and bicyclists. At the same time, motorist deaths from distracted driving crashes largely decreased per vehicle mile traveled, the researchers found. In South Carolina, 123 pedestrians and 13 bicyclists were killed in traffic accidents in 2012, according to federal data.

The Nebraska researchers determined that people between the ages of 25 and 64 made up 56 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 64 percent of bicyclist deaths. Those killed were disproportionately non-Hispanic white males. Victims also were more likely to be struck outside of marked crosswalks and in urban areas.

Distracted driving can range from using a mobile device and changing radio stations to eating and putting on makeup.

Drivers who are focusing on another activity while driving may be engaged in one of the following types of distraction:

  • Visual – not watching the road;
  • Manual – not keeping hands on the wheel;
  • Cognitive– not keeping the mind on driving.

In short, any activity can be viewed as a distraction if it takes a driver’s concentration off the road. Text messaging is considered particularly life-threatening because it combines all 3 types of distraction.

According to the study’s authors, a key issue is that pedestrians and bicyclists are not adequately protected on the nation’s roads. While sophisticated technology continues to improve the safety of cars, the same developments do not help people on foot or bicycles.

The study found that distracted drivers were 1.6 times as likely as non-distracted driver to kill pedestrians in marked crosswalks. However, they were three times as likely to strike pedestrians on road shoulders. The researchers recommend improvements such as lighted crosswalks, additional sidewalks and separate bike lanes with barriers to keep traffic away from bicyclists.

Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths have prompted the U.S. Transportation Department to offer grants for safety improvements in metro areas with the most fatalities. Also, the department launched a website called Everyone Is a Pedestrian that provides safety tips to cities for improving pedestrian safety.

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