UPDATE: Despite what a state website might say, a spokeswoman for the Division of Public Health says it no longer hands out safety reflectors for children.
For those on foot or bicycle, danger lurks in the darkness, and there are no states darker than Alaska from now until March.
Alaskans worry a lot about dying in bear attacks or avalanches, but on an annual basis cars and trucks kill more non-motorists than bears and snow combined.
Since Sept. 15, two pedestrians have been hit and killed by motor vehicles on the streets of Alaska’s largest city. They were part of a trend. Pedestrian deaths in Alaska have been tracking the steady national increase.
Blame the darkness, the slick roads, too many people looking at their cell phones, too many people driving too fast and, yes in part, some pedestrians and cyclists who just don’t pay attention to the danger.
“In recent years, the number of pedestrian fatalities in the United States has grown substantially faster than all other traffic deaths,” the Governors report noted. “The number of pedestrian fatalities increased 27 percent from 2007 to 2016, while at the same time, all other traffic deaths decreased by 14 percent. Pedestrian deaths as a proportion of total motor vehicle crash deaths increased steadily, from 11 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2016. Pedestrians now account for a larger proportion of traffic fatalities than they have in the past 33 years.”
And then there was this:
“Darkness poses an especially high-risk for those traveling by foot. On a national basis, about half of the pedestrian fatalities in 2016 occurred between 6:00 p.m. and midnight, with 75 percent occurring after dark.”
Over the weekend, the social-media website Nextdoor for South Anchorage lit up with people worrying about hitting someone on the many poorly lit roads of the city.
“I was just complaining about this the other day,” one woman wrote. “Came up on a whole family in the dark. Saw them when they were right there in front. Not sure I would have had time to swerve if I was closer to the side of the road. Some places just give out reflective strips and patches or whatever, but I can’t recall, other than maybe schools.”
Another woman reported nearly running down a “high schooler wearing black with his hood up in the dark. He was crossing the street to the bus stop on 120th. It was a close call.”
Many wanted to know where to get reflective tape to put on their kids’ clothing. Scott Woodham, who grew up in Fairbanks in the 1980s remembers kids so decked out in reflective gear they looked like, in his words, “a bunch of Slope workers.”
Alaska’s North Slope oil patch is big on safety, and the companies working there have long required their employees to wear reflective gear, which has become the norm for highway workers as well.
While the idea that it is smart to be seen seems to have caught in all industries that put people to work outdoors, the idea seems to have faded among members of the general public.
Woodham remembers how the Alaska State Troopers’ “Safety Bear” handed out reflective Safety Bear reflectors to all the kids in Fairbanks decades ago. The Safety Bear is now retired to the Trooper Museum.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services still runs an “Alaska Reflector Program,” but its profile seems to have slipped, which might have something to do with fewer and fewer kids walking to school. The Alaska Reflector Program website warns of the dangers of doing so.
Take the bus
“Each year, vehicles kill an estimated 5,700 pedestrians; one out of seven of those are children,” the website says. “In Alaska, darkness descends early in fall and winter months. A child walking during darkness or in low light conditions wearing dark colors is first seen approximately 55 feet. away. This gives a driver less than one-second of reaction time.”
The website appears to be a little dated. The Governors Association said the death toll hit 6,000 in 2016 and stayed there in 2017. It is up from less than 5,000 five years ago.
The Governors report called for improvements in infrastructure – sidewalks, pedestrian underpasses, improved street lighting, high visibility crosswalks and more – to reduce the number of deaths and injuries. Alaska lacks most of those things although street lighting in the state’s largest city has been on the upswing.
Most of it, however, is intended to help motorists spot and avoid moose, not to protect pedestrians. All of which only serves to make it more imperative pedestrians (and cyclists) try to protect themselves.
One of the posters on Nextdoor noted the State of Alaska Driver Manual warning to pedestrians to “wear light-colored clothing when walking on or alongside the roadway at night,” and ” always “walk on the left side of the highway facing oncoming traffic.”
“If you are facing the oncoming traffic at least you have a chance to get out of the way,” he said. “If you have ever had one wheel caught in a snow berm on the side of the road and had your car pulled off towards the ditch you know how easily that can happen. Then there those that just aren’t always watching where they are going at any time of the year. You do not want to get run down from behind.”
The state Driver Manual notes that “it’s a good idea (for motorists) to reduce speed and create a larger space cushion when you see pedestrians on or near the street,” but that advice is only sporadically followed in the state.
Alaska drivers are ranked ninth worst in the nation by the website SmartAsset, but it notes the ranking is skewed by the minimal number of traffic and parking tickets written in Alaska.
“Alaska has the sixth-highest DUI rate in our study and the fourth-highest fatality rate,” the website noted. “If we ranked states just by these two metrics, Alaska would rank number one in our study.”
Alaska is a potentially dangerous place to be on the roads even if you are buckled into heavy iron and surrounded by airbags. It only gets more dangerous in the dark.
And it gets far, far more dangerous if you are on the road unarmored in the dark.
Many of the Nextdoor posters did note that there are, in edition to reflective material, a lot of other ways to help make yourself seen along the roads these days. High-power headlamps are now available for reasonable prices almost anywhere, and high-intensity flashing strobes on pets and people make them impossible to miss.