Joan Lowy

WASHINGTON: Pedestrian deaths are climbing faster than motorist fatalities, reaching nearly 6,000 deaths last year — the highest total in more than two decades, according to an analysis of preliminary state data released Thursday.

Increased driving due to an improved economy, lower gas prices and more walking for exercise and environmental factors are some of the likely reasons behind the estimated 11 percent spike in pedestrian fatalities in 2016. The figures were prepared for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

But researchers say they think the biggest factor may be more drivers and walkers distracted by cellphones and other electronic devices, although that’s hard to confirm.

Walking and miles driven are up only a few percentage points, and are unlikely to account for most of the surge in pedestrian deaths, said Richard Retting, safety director for Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants and the author of the report. Meanwhile, texting and use of wireless devices have exploded, he said.

“It’s the only factor that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave,” Retting said.

“This latest data shows that the U.S. isn’t meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways,” said Jonathan Adkins, the safety association’s executive director.

Traffic fatalities overall jumped 6 percent last year.