ALBUQUERQUE, NM — After a festive evening spent viewing a display of Christmas lights, Aditya Bhattacharya and his family were crossing a street to return home.
Then a driver ran a red light, hitting him and his 7-year-old son, Pronoy.
“I took a step, that’s the last thing I remember,” Bhattacharya, 45, said. “When I regained consciousness, all I could hear was my wife sitting on the sidewalk, screaming, ‘Pronoy is dead’.”
The boy’s death at an Albuquerque crosswalk in December and the seven-week manhunt to find the driver have shaken many in this part of the West at the grim number of pedestrian deaths, which started increasing in New Mexico and other states in 2020.
Two years into the pandemic, those deaths are hitting a record high amid a nationwide spike in reckless driving. In various initiatives to reverse the trends, authorities in state after state cite factors ranging from rising levels of anxiety and pandemic alcohol consumption to fraying social norms.
New Mexico recorded 99 pedestrian fatalities last year, down from 81 in 2020 and 83 in 2019 and the most since it began tracking such incidents in the 1990s. But while Sun states Belt have been particularly hard hit, with the death toll among pedestrians rising over the past year in many parts of the country.
New Jersey has recorded its highest number of pedestrian fatalities in more than 30 years. Last year was also the deadliest on Utah roads since the turn of the century, with pedestrian fatalities up 22%. Washington State ended 2021 with a 15-year record for traffic fatalities. And pedestrian fatalities in Texas soared to an all-time high last year.
At the start of the pandemic, some traffic experts were optimistic that pedestrian fatalities were declining. After all, millions of motorists were reducing their driving times and adhering to social distancing measures.
The opposite happened.
The empty roads allowed some to drive much faster than before. Some police chiefs have relaxed enforcement, wary of face-to-face contact. For reasons psychologists and transit safety experts are only just beginning to explain, drivers also seemed to be getting angrier.
Dr David Spiegel, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford Medical School, said many drivers struggle with what he calls “saliency saturation”.
“We’re so saturated with fears about the virus and what it’s going to do,” Spiegel said. “People feel like they’re getting a pass for other threats.”
Spiegel said another factor was “social disengagement,” which deprives people of social contacts, a major source of pleasure, support and comfort. Combine that loss with an overload in our ability to assess risk, Spiegel said, and people don’t pay as much attention to safe driving.
“If they do, they don’t care that much,” Spiegel said. “It feels like the rules are suspended and all bets are off.”
Crashes killed more than 6,700 pedestrians in 2020, up about 5% from an estimated 6,412 the previous year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Based on another commonly used road safety metric – vehicle miles traveled – the group projected the pedestrian fatality rate to climb by around 21% in 2020 as fatalities rose sharply, even if people drove significantly less that year, the biggest year-over-year increase. And preliminary data from 2021 indicates a further increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities.
While other developed countries have made progress in reducing pedestrian fatalities in recent years, the pandemic has intensified several trends that have pushed the United States in the other direction. Crashes killing pedestrians have increased 46% over the past decade, compared to a 5% increase for all other crashes, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Angie Schmitt, who describes pedestrian deaths as a “silent epidemic” in a new book, said the reasons included an aging population, in which older pedestrians are more vulnerable, and the growth of the Sun Belt region, where cities were designed after the World War. II prioritize speed over safety. And the bulging sizes of SUVs and trucks, which have become heavier with taller fronts, are hitting people on foot with greater force than before.
After decades in which road deaths declined in the United States, Schmitt noted that those deaths began to climb in 2009, when small sedans still accounted for most vehicles sold.
“Now about 3 in 4 new vehicles are pickups, vans or SUVs,” Schmitt said. “Cars are getting bigger, faster and deadlier.”
Others warn that since new vehicles have become larger and safer for people inside, with features such as lane departure warnings and rear-view cameras, some drivers are being encouraged to steer clear of risks for pedestrians.
“There’s a part of the population that’s incredibly frustrated, enraged, and part of that behavior shows up in their driving,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. “We in our vehicles enjoy anonymity in this giant metal box around us, and we act in ways that we wouldn’t face to face.”
The streets of Albuquerque, where Pronoy Bhattacharya was killed in the hit-and-run, showcase the challenges pedestrians face. Around the vast metropolitan area, home to nearly a million people, drivers routinely run through red lights or overrun stop signs. Cars without license plates abound on Albuquerque’s roads.
Despite such behavior, locals say they can go years without seeing drivers arrested for violations of any kind. After the boy’s death, readers flooded The Albuquerque Journal with emails attacking local authorities after witnessing illegal conduct on a daily basis.
Steve Schackley, 72, said he had seen no more than two traffic stops in his 16 years in the city. “People do whatever they want when there’s almost no enforcement,” said Shackley, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Aggressive drivers sometimes get caught. In October, police arrested a 26-year-old man who was allegedly intoxicated, carrying a handgun and driving at 140mph on one of the city’s main avenues.
Street racing is another issue. When a woman was arrested in 2020 after killing a pedestrian on Central Avenue, her boyfriend told officers they were driving home in separate vehicles, “a game in their relationship,” according to a court filing. In another recent tragedy, sheriff’s deputies say the driver of a Ford pickup truck was street racing at 90mph when it crashed into a car exiting a Roman Catholic abbey, killing a 35-year-old priest.
Across the country, the total number of road fatalities — not just crashes killing pedestrians — is also rising at a record rate. Nearly 32,000 people were killed in vehicle crashes in the first nine months of 2021, a 12% increase from the same period in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It was the highest number of deaths in the first nine months of any year since 2006 and the largest percentage increase in the first nine months in the reporting system’s history.
In the accident that killed Pronoy, the driver was at the helm of an all-terrain vehicle. These vehicles are illegal on the streets of Albuquerque but are still commonly seen in the city. Video footage showed the driver, Sergio Almanza, drinking in a bar before the crash.
Pronoy’s mother, Dr. Deepshikha Nag Chowdhury, a gastroenterologist at an Albuquerque hospital, publicly pleaded with authorities to find the driver within weeks. After fleeing the scene and going into hiding, Almanza surrendered to US Marshals on January 31.
Bhattacharya, who immigrated to the United States from India two decades ago, suffered a facial fracture in addition to losing his son. He said the accident also shattered some of his long-held views.
“It’s ironic that I’ve told so many friends how safe it is to cross the street in the US compared to India,” said Bhattacharya, who works in information technology. “I always thought we would be safer here.”
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina was candid in his assessment of the situation. With the department also facing an increase in homicides and an increase in armed robbery cases, he argued that resources and personnel were scattered at a time when tempers were on fire.
“We see erratic behavior in the way people act and their level of patience,” Medina said in an interview. “Everyone was pushed. This is one of the most stressful times in my memory.
In addition to more aggressive driving, Medina cited an increase in drunk driving and a growing homeless population as other factors, explaining that some pedestrian deaths in the city were living on the streets.
Still, Medina insisted the situation was changing. After Pronoy’s death, he said the department was stepping up enforcement, issuing more than 4,600 traffic citations in January, up from about 3,450 the same month a year ago.
Ava Montoya, spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller, said Albuquerque is improving traffic control and initiating several measures, including improved lighting and the use of mobile speed-checking devices and speed camera-equipped vans.
Yet as leaders in Albuquerque and other cities seek solutions, others in the wake of pedestrian deaths across the country are expressing concern about the persistence of pandemic-related factors.
Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, said such emotions partly reflect “two years of stopping us from doing things we’d like to do.”
“We’re all kind of at the end of our rope on things,” Markman said. “When you get angry in the car, it generates energy – and how do you dissipate that energy? Well, one way is to press the accelerator a bit more.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.