Pedestrian deaths are way up in Kansas and Missouri. Are we all just driving angry? | Opinion

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Something scary is happening on the streets of Kansas and Missouri. The number of people hit and killed by motor vehicles has been increasing dramatically, according to a new report — part of a dramatic uptick in pedestrian traffic fatalities across the country.

The new report from the Governors Highway Safety Administration reveals that in Kansas the number of such deaths skyrocketed from just 18 in 2019 to 47 in 2022. The increase was smaller in Missouri, but involved much larger numbers: There were 111 pedestrian fatalities in 2019, which rose to 129 last year. If there is any good news for our region in the report, it’s that both states have lower fatality rates than the national average of 2.38 pedestrian traffic deaths per 100,000 people.

It’s a nationwide problem. Across the country, more than 7,500 people died last year because they were hit by a car or other vehicle. That’s up from just over 6,300 three years earlier — and a shocking jump from the 2010 number of 4,302 deaths.

Other traffic deaths have also been on the rise, but the report makes clear that it is pedestrians — folks out jogging, walking or strolling — who face the greatest danger. Since 2010, the GHSA reported, “pedestrian deaths have gone up a shocking 77%, compared to a 25% increase in all other traffic fatalities.”

That is horrifying. What is going on?

One obvious answer: speed.

“The faster a vehicle is traveling, the higher the risk of it killing someone it strikes,” the GHSA report noted. “Research confirmed that speeding and other risky driving behaviors increased during the pandemic and persisted into 2021.” Naturally, speeding-related pedestrian deaths increased at the same time.

There are other factors, as well: Nationwide, one-fifth of pedestrian fatalities involved a driver who had a high blood alcohol content. There are more SUVs and large pickup trucks on the road, which tend to be deadlier for unlucky pedestrians. And the vast majority of fatal crashes happened after dark.

Let us suggest another possibility: Many American drivers — including, yes, those in Kansas and Missouri — seem to have completely lost their minds.

“Road rage” has been part of the lexicon for decades. But it wasn’t so long ago that road rage incidents used to be an occasional thing, something notable and rare that surprised us. Increasingly, angry driving seems to be the rule.

Or as we noted when the phenomenon emerged in 2021: “Too many motorists, it seems, have stopped caring about anyone but themselves.”

Turn signals are used rarely, or too late actually to alert other drivers. Merging into traffic seems to be a lost art; hostile cutoffs are more common. The most basic lessons of our driver’s ed classes — simple concepts such as “defensive driving” and “the pedestrian always has the right-of-way” — seem to have gone out the window entirely.

And if you’re the unlucky person facing down a two-ton vehicle driven by somebody who has dispensed with those rules, well, God help you.

Have American drivers become selfish? Did the pandemic break us? Did the “rules are for the other guy” ethos of Donald Trump and his millions of acolytes create a culture where anything goes?

We’re not sure. But we have our suspicions.

There is work to be done to make our streets safer, to protect fragile human bodies from the heavy machines that can so easily crush them. The GHSA offers examples — everything from sting operations designed to catch speeding drivers at crosswalks to wholesale roadway redesigns that include pedestrian refuge islands on major roadways and beacons that can better alert drivers to the presence of people on foot.

These are good ideas. Well-designed roads help protect all of us — drivers and pedestrians — from our mistakes.

We suspect, though, that the danger will remain until drivers in Kansas and Missouri and everywhere else take a collective chill pill, drive a little less angry and remember to share the road. Our neighbors who walk, run and jog deserve no less.