Pedestrian deaths spike right after sunset

By Megan Link

As pedestrian deaths continue to rise, it has become clear that most of these deaths happen at night. But a new study finds that the half hour after sunset is the most dangerous in the United States. This worrisome trend is exacerbated by the high-speed, multilane roads that predominate in the U.S. The solutions, in addition to improved visibility, are the same at night as they are during the day: policy, design, and behavior changes that encourage safer, slower driving. 

A recent New York Times article analyzed the stark contrast in pedestrian deaths during the day and night in the United States. In comparison with other countries, the U.S. has seen a significant increase in pedestrian deaths since 2009, around 7,300 per year. Three out of four pedestrian deaths occurred at night in 2021. The authors share factors that may be connected to these trends, including car culture, bigger vehicles, cell phone use, and where people live. It points specifically to suburban growth in areas of the country without walking and biking infrastructure. We’ve written about many of these factors before.  

In response to the NY Times article, two self-proclaimed “data nerds” from Madison, Wisconsin, where SSTI is based, conducted an analysis to further unpack the nighttime trend in pedestrian deaths. They looked at pedestrian fatality data from 2001 to 2021 and found a notable pattern: fatalities peak 15-20 minutes after sunset.  

Pedestrian deaths spike after sunset. Source: Harald Kliems

Although the number of fatalities decreased after the post-sunset spike, the levels are still much higher than during the day. The two analysts then compared the sunset spike pattern with sunrise. Although it is less severe, there is a similar spike in deaths around 20 to 50 minutes before the sun rises. To understand why, they looked across different states, months, and years to see how the patterns change. The peaks after sunset and before sunrise remained consistent. There is some variation in the winter months, where more people commute in the dark.


It does not seem that sunset or sunrise are inherently more dangerous, given that the peak in deaths is offset by 15 minutes or more. Instead, there seems to be a confluence of factors around that time: high traffic and pedestrian volumes, poor visibility, and a built environment that encourages speed. Research presented at TRB (based on NCHRP 17-97) points to some of those factors, along with several policy and behavior change recommendations:

  1. Identify the most dangerous roads. Straight, high-speed, multilane arterial roads are more dangerous to pedestrians, especially at night. These areas often lack sidewalks and have unsafe intersections for people crossing. Knowing the network of these “stroads” establishes a baseline for where improvements need to be made.
  2. Design for pedestrian safety. The pedestrian fatality crisis in the United States is, unfortunately, not new, and it is largely the result of how we design of our roads. Correcting this will require safe road design features like traffic calming, shorter crossings, and more complete sidewalk networks. High-visibility crossings and road lighting are also key factors in reducing pedestrian deaths at night, but they do not replace safer road design.
  3. Focus on behavior changes that encourage safe driving at night. Drivers in the U.S. are becoming more distracted by mobile devices, according to the NY Times. In a fast environment designed mainly for cars, it is easier for a driver to become distracted and unable to respond to a pedestrian in time. In addition to stricter phone usage rules, the researchers behind NCHRP 17-97 suggest testing lower speed limits at night, when driver visibility and response times are more limited.

Photo Credit: Zeeshaan Shabbir via Pexels, unmodified. License