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Investigative report: SUVs are a major factor in rise of pedestrian deaths

Using Insurance Institute for Highway Safety data, Free Press/USA Today reporters found a 69 percent increase in SUV involvement in pedestrian fatalities from 2009 through 2016.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that single-vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving SUVS climbed 81 percent from 2009 through 2016.
Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

An investigative report published earlier this month by the Detroit Free Press and USA Today describes why Americans’ infatuation with SUVs and other light truck vehicles is a key cause of the recent rise in pedestrian deaths nationwide.

Pedestrian deaths in the United States are down since their high of more than 8,000 in 1979, but they have increased by a disturbing 46 percent since 2009.

As reporters Eric Lawrence, Nathan Bomey and Kristi Tanner point out, “almost 6,000 pedestrians died on or along U.S. roads in 2016 alone — nearly as many Americans as have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.”

(In Minnesota, pedestrian deaths reached a 25-year high of 60 in 2016, but then dropped to 38 in 2017.)

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Some of the increase in pedestrian deaths since 2009 is due to more people — both pedestrians and drivers — becoming distracted as they talk or text on a cellphone. Another factor is that as the economy recovered from the Great Recession, people began driving more. 

But many safety experts believe that the growing popularity of SUVs has played an even bigger role in the increase in motor vehicle deaths involving pedestrians. Indeed, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that single-vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving SUVS climbed 81 percent from 2009 through 2016.

Using the same data, the Free Press/USA Today reporters found a 69 percent increase in SUV involvement in pedestrian fatalities. (The reporters counted vehicles that struck and killed pedestrians rather than the number of people killed.) They also found that the proportion of fatal pedestrian crashes involving SUVs increased each year during that eight-year period.

Deadlier than passenger cars

Federal safety regulators are aware of the SUV connection with the rise in pedestrian fatalities, although they’ve “done little to reduce deaths or publicize the danger,” write Lawrence, Bomey and Tanner.

The reporters point to a 2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report in which the agency acknowledged (on a single page in a 195-page report) that SUVs are deadlier for pedestrians than cars: 

That report, citing 12 independent studies of injury data, said walkers and joggers are two to three times ‘more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pickup than when struck by a passenger car.’

That report also noted that SUVs and trucks were involved in a third of pedestrian injuries but 40 percent of deaths, indicating that injuries ‘may be more severe when sustained in collisions with these vehicles.’

The proportion of SUVS on the road has only grown in the three years since.

Why are SUVs deadlier to pedestrians than passenger cars? Surprisingly, it has less to do with the SUV’s overall mass than with its height and front-end design.

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When a passenger car hits a pedestrian, the person is typically hit in the legs and thrown over the hood of the car. Light truck vehicles, a category that includes pickup trucks, minivans and SUVs, have higher front ends. They tend to strike a pedestrian in the head or chest, and thus are more likely to cause life-threatening injuries to the person’s brain or other vital organs.  

‘An urban plague’

The Free Press/USA Today reporters point out that “the rising tide of pedestrian deaths is primarily an urban plague that kills minorities at a disproportionate rate.”

They report that among cities with populations of at least 200,000, those with the highest per-capita death rates in pedestrian-vehicle accidents in 2009-2016 were Detroit, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; St. Louis, Missouri; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Miami, Florida; San Bernadino, California; Birmingham, Alabama; Tampa, Florida; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Phoenix, Arizona. 

As pedestrian deaths have risen, many cities have taken steps to make their streets safer for people traveling by foot. These actions include lowering speed limits and training cab drivers (New York City), narrowing a particularly deadly road from four to three lanes and increasing enforcement of traffic laws (Seattle), adding pedestrian refuge islands and new streetlights (Detroit) and passing laws against texting and walking when crossing streets (Honolulu). 

“Nationally, speed and red-light cameras are also credited with making streets safer for pedestrians,” the reporters add. “As of May, 421 communities were using red-light cameras and 143 communities were using speed cameras to enforce traffic laws, according to the Insurance Institute.”

Little has been done

But, as the reporters note, “vehicle safety features are believed to be just as crucial to reducing pedestrian deaths.”

U.S. Department of Transportation researchers believe that features such as automatic emergency braking could reduce as many as 5,000 vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes and 810 pedestrian fatalities each year.

“Most automakers have voluntarily committed to installing low-speed automatic emergency braking systems by 2022, but the progress to date varies greatly,” Lawrence, Bomey and Tanner write.

The reporters also point out that “a federal proposal to factor pedestrians into vehicle safety ratings has stalled, with opposition from some automakers.” 

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Pedestrian safety ratings are used in Europe, however. European regulators also actively encourage vehicle manufacturers to consider pedestrian impact when designing their vehicles. 

As a result, many new cars sold in Europe have such features as added padding to their bumper areas, a space between the hood and the engine that allows the hood to absorb the impact of a pedestrian’s head, and external airbags.

“The technology is really going to be our savior,” one industrial manufacturing expert told Lawrence, Bomey and Tanner

For more information: You can read the Free Press/USA Today investigative report online.