As little as 150 minutes of walking each week may reduce your risk of all-cause mortality,1 reduce your insulin resistance2 and contribute to a fitness routine, helping improve your balance, metabolism and mood.3 However, while walking is a simple and easy way to integrate fitness into your daily routine, it’s important to pay attention to your surroundings while walking.
For instance, research has demonstrated the number of people dying early from exposure to air pollution, including car exhaust, is more than the number caused by smoking each year.4 Rising rates of pollution contribute to lower life expectancy, attention deficit disorder, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Thus, it is likely not a good idea to be walking outdoors in highly polluted areas.
People check their smartphones 150 times a day, or every six minutes; 46 percent say they couldn’t live without them; and many prefer texting over real-life conversations.5
This behavior may, in part, have contributed to preliminary data from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) showing pedestrian deaths are at an all-time high, greater than numbers reported in the 1990s, rising 35 percent from 2008 to 2017.6
Pedestrian Deaths at the Highest Level in Decades
In 2018, over 6,200 people died in traffic accidents, the highest number recorded in nearly 30 years. According to these estimates by the GHSA, walking to work or walking the dog at night may be riskier than you previously imagined.
The report from the nonprofit group comes at a time when the number of other traffic deaths are on the decline.7 According to the GHSA, the traffic deaths from all other causes declined by 6 percent in the time from 2008 to 2017.8 In a statement, executive director Jonathan Adkins said:9
“While we have made progress reducing fatalities among many other road users in the past decade, pedestrian deaths have risen 35 percent [since 2008]. The alarm bells continue to sound on this issue; it’s clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse the trend.”
The GHSA report showed a 4 percent increase in pedestrian deaths over 2017,10 and identified a handful of factors that may have contributed to these increasing numbers,11 as well as the cities where pedestrians may be at greatest risk.12
Factors contributing to the rising number of pedestrian deaths may be found inside and outside the control of state and local traffic safety officials. Some include economic conditions, population growth, weather conditions and fuel prices.
The increasing number of light trucks and SUVs on the road is one factor, as the number of fatalities involving SUVs increased by 50 percent as compared to passenger cars, which increased by 30 percent.13
A larger number of fatalities also occurred at night, and cities experiencing the highest population growth had an overall 5 percent increase in the number of fatalities during the first six months of 2018.
High-risk states included Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho and North Carolina.14 The report also identified distracted drivers and pedestrians due to smartphone use as a possible contributing factor.15
The Good News
Despite the overall rise in pedestrian deaths, the GHSA did find some good news in the data. During the first half of 2018 there was a decline in pedestrian fatalities in 23 states as compared to the same period in 2017. Additionally, Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada and Oklahoma posted double-digit declines in the number and percent of change during this same time period.16
The number of fatalities in the 10 largest cities declined by 15 percent, and was especially evident in New York City, demonstrating local success across each state may not be reflected in the statewide data reported. The researchers suggested enhancing safety is in the best interest of everyone as the rising number of fatalities makes it clear the issue must be a continued priority.17
While infrastructure improvements are necessary, the researchers also suggested implementing educational campaigns and law enforcement countermeasures. In the appendix, the report shared the strategies each state is using to address pedestrian safety. Although not a full representation of activities, it is a good indication of the types of changes occurring in your state.18
Smartphones Are Distracting and Addicting
The data demonstrated the largest category of roads where pedestrian fatalities occurred in 2017 was local streets.19 Those occurring on interstates often involved motorists who were struck standing outside of their cars due to mechanical issues or minor car crashes.
On local streets, people were more apt to be walking distracted. You’ve likely seen it many times — individuals walking along the street with their face buried in their smartphone. Riding bicycles, driving cars, on commuter trains and even eating dinner with their families, many are busy scrolling through their phones, paying little attention to their surroundings.
As technology has become more accessible, few are willing to live without it. Many jobs have also changed drastically with the leap from typewriters to computers. Today, more connect to the internet using their smartphone at home than they do on a computer.20
Of the 95 percent of Americans who own a cellphone, 77 percent use a smartphone.21 Some conditions may trigger internet addiction or compulsions, including anxiety, depression, social isolation, stress and other addictions.22 Much like drugs and alcohol, internet activity stimulates your brain’s reward system and provides a constant source of information and entertainment.
The physical and mental effects of addiction, coupled with the physical effects of withdrawal, may increase your risks for long-term health conditions. In a recent study involving 144 people between the ages of 18 and 33, researchers discovered both heart rate and blood pressure are affected in those who report spending extended periods of time online.23
Placebo Action May Give You the Illusion of Control
Using a protected crosswalk may reduce your risk of a pedestrian fatality. However, some crosswalks have placebo buttons installed, which appear mechanically sound but have no functionality. In much the same way medicine uses placebo pills, these buttons give pedestrians the illusion of control. In a telephone interview with CNN, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, Ph.D., commented:24
“They do have a psychological effect. Taking some action leads people to feel a sense of control over a situation, and that feels good, rather than just being a passive bystander. Doing something typically feels better than doing nothing.”
In 2004, The New York Times25 revealed the majority of the buttons in New York didn’t work, although 750 were still operational. Today, a spokesperson from New York City’s Department of Transportation reported to CNN only 100 of the 1,000 crosswalk buttons are actually functional.26
This shift may have been triggered by increasing traffic. Today more advanced systems are used to determine when the traffic lights change. However, the buttons are often kept rather than incurring further expense to remove them. In some cities the buttons respond only at a certain time of the day.
In London, where over 6,000 traffic signals are present, there are crossings where the green light comes on automatically, but features such as tactile paving and audible traffic signals are used to help those who are visually impaired and are only activated when the crossing light button is pushed.27
Physical and Mental Benefits of Walking
According to the World Health Organization, inactivity is one of the leading causes of death in adults around the world.28 Walking daily may go a long way toward reducing this risk. Walking produces many beneficial biochemical changes in your body, such as raising your heart rate, increasing calorie burn and increasing the amount of nitric oxide released into your bloodstream.
Walking may also boost your memory and improve your creative problem-solving. One Stanford University study29 found walking increased creative output by an average of 60 percent as compared to sitting still. Several studies have confirmed the effect on health and longevity, including the following:
- Walking four times a week for 15 minutes was found to improve overall survival in comparison to those walking less, with the elderly experiencing a 40 percent reduction in risk of mortality.30
- In a study of 707 nonsmoking retired men, the mortality rate in those who walked less than 1 mile each day was nearly twice that of those who walked more than 2 miles.31
- Participants who walked more than one hour a day had a longer life expectancy than those who walked less. The researchers felt the increased longevity resulted from a healthier lifestyle and decreased the participants’ lifetime medical expenditures.32
- Speeding up your walking may increase your life expectancy even further. Research from the University of Sydney found walking an average pace reduced risk of all-cause mortality by 20 percent, but increasing your pace reduced your risk by 24 percent. The protective effects were also more pronounced in the older age groups.33
Watch Out to Walk Safely
One of the best ways to reduce your risk of injury while walking is not to use any digital device that would distract you from your environment. Here are several more ways to reduce your risk of injury:
Walk with reflective clothing at dusk and after
Put reflective strips on your bike or pet
Don’t assume a driver sees you; try to make eye contact with the driver
Carry ID with your emergency contact information
Let others know where you’ll be going and when to expect you back
Stay in well-lit areas
Stay alert to your environment at all times
Walk facing oncoming traffic and stick to sidewalks when available
Keep the volume of your music down to hear traffic noise