Walking along Connecticut roads is a hell of a lot less risky now than it was three decades ago. But federal officials are getting worried that "distracted walking" with cell phones and iPods and tablets could be screwing up that long-term safety trend.
There have also been some serious and mysterious spikes in pedestrian deaths in Connecticut in recent years that are apparently baffling the experts.
Federal reports show Connecticut was averaging about 75 pedestrian traffic deaths a year during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Recent statistics indicate that average has dropped by more than half, down to about 36 people killed each year in this state while walking on our roads.
Traffic experts like Steven Higashide, Connecticut coordinator of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, say the dramatic decline has much to do with getting drunk drivers off the roads and realizing streets can be made a lot safer for those who walk.
"Going all the way back to the 1970s and 1980s," Higashide says, "alcohol was one of the factors. That was when there was a huge public-awareness push around the dangers of drunk driving."
There has also been "a cultural shift" among Connecticut's transportation and urban planners toward recognizing that designing streets for more than just car traffic can make everybody safer.
Connecticut passed a "Complete Streets" law a few years ago that requires state and local officials to do more to make our roadways more user-friendly for people walking or on bikes.
Nationally, the trend toward lower pedestrian fatality rates was going along fine until 2010-2011 (the latest period for which complete statistics are available). The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration reported that traffic deaths for people walking rose from 4,109 in 2009 to 4,432 in 2011.
The data show that 75 percent of all pedestrians killed in traffic were hit in urban areas and more than 70 percent happened at night.
And guess what: about half of all accidents that killed people walking involved alcohol, and 37 percent of the pedestrians who got whacked were legally drunk. (Now that's one old-fashioned definition of "distracted walking.")
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says he's worried that the increase in pedestrians using electronic devices like cell phones and other electronic gizmos to text or listen to music while strolling along may also be a factor, along with drivers doing the same sort of crazy-dangerous stuff.
Most officials and experts in this state are leery of the "distracted walker" theory. "I've only seen anecdotal data," says Higashide.
Kelly Kennedy, executive director of the statewide organization Bike Walk Connecticut, says she thinks distracted walking "is going to be more of an issue in the future" than it is right now.
Connecticut just increased fines for driving while using a handheld cell or texting. Now, you get caught and you'll pay $150 for a first offense, $300 for a second, and $500 a pop for three or more of those babies.
While federal officials are worried about an increase in pedestrian deaths nationally, here in Connecticut the statistics are more than a little muddy.
The trend was definitely headed down during most of the last decade, but then in 2008 the number jumped to 47 pedestrians killed. The following year, the death toll for walkers plunged to 26, bounced up to 46 dead in 2010, then dropped again to 26 killed in 2011.
And no one is quite certain why this roller-coaster ride of death is happening.
State Police spokesman Lt. Paul Vance says he doesn't want to hazard a guess. Higashide isn't sure either, but thinks variations in weather may have played a role.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation won't even comment on the issue. In fact, the DOT declined to have anyone in its agency do an interview for this story at all.
In an e-mail, DOT spokesman Judd Everhart did say that "If we become aware of a trouble spot [where there is a high risk for pedestrians to be killed], we do a study and determine the best course of action."
As an example, he cited a nasty pedestrian traffic situation in Westport along Route 1 around the Bulkley Avenue intersection. (Route 1 is routinely labeled as Connecticut's most dangerous road for pedestrians because of its massive traffic volumes and high population densities.)
In 2008 and 2010, that section saw two people killed while walking. In 2011, the Shake Shack opened, and that hamburger spot drew even more foot traffic and saw another pedestrian injured. That poor sucker also got hit with a ticket for failing to cross in a marked crosswalk and failing to give way to a car.
After lots of discussions and studies, the town of Westport and the state agreed to make safety improvements. And in June 2013, new sidewalks and crosswalks and countdown pedestrian signals were finally installed.
Another example of the DOT's changing attitude toward non-motorized road users was the agency's decision to put a dangerous stretch of Route 44 (Burnside Avenue) in East Hartford on a "road diet." The trigger was the death of three cyclists on that roadway in less than two years.
The unprecedented move by Connecticut's traditionally auto-oriented DOT slimmed down the four-lane highway to two lanes and made pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly changes to parking and crosswalks.
Unfortunately, say Connecticut transportation activists, those are isolated examples.
"We haven't implemented our "Complete Streets" law in any systematic, meaningful way in Connecticut," says Kennedy.
Higashide agrees. He points out that the DOT still hasn't even incorporated the "Complete Streets" design philosophy into its guidelines for the agency's highway engineers.