Shared from the 2/15/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Bad driving has taken toll on pedestrians

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — 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 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 search 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.

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.

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

The opposite happened.

Empty roads allowed some to drive much faster than before. Some police chiefs eased enforcement. 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,” Spiegel said. “People feel that they get a pass on other threats.”

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