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Pedestrian Deaths Are Rising. One Big Reason? SUVs

Local leaders are trying to figure out how to respond to the growing number of SUV-related fatalities while more Americans are choosing bigger cars.

suv ped deaths
(Shutterstock/Michele Vacchiano)
As the number of pedestrian deaths continues to climb nationwide, a recent report highlighted one likely contributor that's only likely to get worse: a growing number of fatal SUV-pedestrian crashes.

Deadly SUV crashes are increasing at a far higher rate than crashes with any other type of vehicle. Fatal SUV-pedestrian collisions increased by 81 percent between 2009 and 2016, compared to 46 percent for all vehicles.

Fatal collisions with cars went up 41 percent in the same time, while they increased 32 percent with trucks and 15 percent with minivans and vans.

To be sure, cars still account for the biggest share of pedestrian deaths, including 45 percent of pedestrian fatalities in 2016. That's far more than the 25 percent caused by crashes with SUVs, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But the rapid recent rise in SUV-related deaths is nonetheless striking.

Part of the reason for the increase is that SUVs continue to make up a bigger share of the vehicles that Americans drive. But that doesn’t account for all of the change, since the number of SUVs on the road only increased by 37 percent from 2009 to 2016, IIHS researchers noted.

In fact, the numbers also appear to be increasing because collisions between SUVs and pedestrians are more deadly than crashes between cars and pedestrians.


“Pedestrians have a higher risk of death or serious injury when they are struck by an SUV compared to a car,” says Jessica Cicchino, one of the authors of the IIHS report. “SUVs are higher off the ground than cars, they're stiffer, and they have blunter geometry in the front compared with the more sloping front ends of cars. These features of SUVs can lead to more injuries of all types when a pedestrian is struck by an SUV, especially injuries to the chest and head.”

An often-cited 2004 study concluded that a pedestrian is twice as likely to die in a collision with an SUV compared with a car.

But it looks like SUVs will continue to gain popularity in the coming years. Ford Motors has announced plans to phase out U.S. sales of nearly all of its cars by 2020; the only models it will continue to sell are the Mustang and a soon-to-be-released Focus Active. In two years, the company predicted, almost 90 percent of the Ford portfolio in North America will be trucks, utilities and commercial vehicles. Other big automakers are making similar shifts. “Detroit’s Big Three automakers -- Chrysler, Ford and General Motors -- pioneered the mass production of the car, but in just four years, all three may be known to Americans simply as truck and SUV makers, with only a stray sedan for sale,” noted Nightly Business Report last month.

Unlike Europe and Japan, The U.S. doesn’t require automakers to include safety devices to minimize injuries to pedestrians. But even if it did, designing features that help pedestrians is easier in cars than it is with SUVs.

One common pedestrian-protection system addresses a major problem in pedestrian crashes: the pedestrian’s head hitting the hood of a car at great speeds. The system, called an active hood lift system, is used by Mercedes, Tesla, Hyundai and others -- but not the in the U.S. market. (Buick has plans to introduce it in new Regal models here.) It essentially pops up the hood of a car a few inches when the vehicle detects that it is colliding with pedestrian instead of a pole or a tree.

The reaction is instantaneous -- the mechanism that lifts the hood sometimes uses gunpowder --because it has to be. The idea is to raise the hood before the head of the pedestrian hits it. That way, when the pedestrian’s head does hit the hood, it has a few inches of give to absorb the impact, so the pedestrian’s head doesn’t hit the engine and other solid metal pieces under the hood.

But those systems are easier to design for cars than for SUVs. With a higher hood, a pedestrian’s head is more likely to hit the hood closer to the bumper. The shorter distance means the head hits faster, so the shock-absorbing mechanism has to react quicker.

The IIHS researchers noted that other improvements in vehicle design, generally, could reduce pedestrian deaths. Some collision warning systems, like those found on some Subaru models, can detect pedestrians. In fact, the researchers said, one study found that Subaru cars with an automatic emergency braking system that could detect pedestrians had 35 percent fewer pedestrian crashes than similar models without the feature, based on insurance claim data. But the effectiveness of those systems “depends on how they function at high speeds or in low-light environments, where both a large majority of and high increases in pedestrian fatalities occurred,” the researchers cautioned.

Rearview cameras could potentially also reduce pedestrian collisions, if they can be linked to pedestrian-detection and automatic-braking features, the IIHS researchers wrote. And better headlights could help drivers see pedestrians at night.

City and state officials have little say over vehicle design, of course, and the growing number of SUV-to-pedestrian deaths has not yet been a major focus of safety campaigns like Vision Zero. One reason is that there isn’t much data on how SUV crashes with pedestrians may be different than car crashes. For example, does the design of SUVs make it harder for drivers to see pedestrians? Do SUV drivers -- who some research has shown to be more aggressive -- behave differently than car drivers? Are there changes in street design that would specifically help high-sitting drivers interact with pedestrians?

“At the very least, we should be studying whether it is true [that it is harder for SUV drivers to see pedestrians],” says Kate Kraft, executive director of America Walks, a national advocacy group for pedestrians. “And if so, we need to develop policies accordingly.”

Kraft, like the IIHS researchers, called for changes in street design to help reduce the numbers of pedestrian deaths. That could involve adding crosswalks and medians, reducing the number of traffic lanes, or increasing the length of walk signals. She also stressed the need to reduce vehicle speed. By now, she said, engineers know how effective each of those treatments can be, so there’s no reason not to use them.

“Any place where you’ve had crashes, we need to be doing something about it,” she says. Street design might not explain the recent increase in pedestrian deaths, Kraft adds, “but with more cars, more distractions and more higher-weight vehicles, the [poor] design of the streets just exacerbates the problems.”


2016 Pedestrian Fatalities By State

Several mostly rural states recorded more SUV-related deaths relative to other fatal pedestrian accidents in 2016.

State SUV Fatalities Total Fatalities
South Dakota 0 6
Wyoming 0 5
Iowa 2 22
Idaho 2 17
Minnesota 7 58
Mississippi 8 58
Tennessee 14 97
North Carolina 29 200
Kansas 6 41
California 138 867
Alabama 18 111
Pennsylvania 28 169
Missouri 16 96
Oregon 12 72
Ohio 23 134
Virginia 21 122
New Jersey 28 162
Arizona 33 190
Texas 118 672
Wisconsin 9 51
Arkansas 8 44
Florida 119 652
Delaware 5 27
Indiana 16 85
Illinois 28 148
Washington 16 84
New Mexico 14 73
Kentucky 16 81
Massachusetts 16 80
Connecticut 11 54
Louisiana 26 127
Hawaii 6 29
Oklahoma 18 87
Georgia 49 232
Michigan 35 162
Maine 4 17
New Hampshire 4 17
District Of Columbia 2 8
South Carolina 36 144
Vermont 1 4
West Virginia 6 24
New York 77 304
Utah 9 35
Maryland 28 104
Montana 3 11
Nevada 22 80
North Dakota 2 7
Rhode Island 4 14
Alaska 4 12
Nebraska 4 12
Colorado 29 79
Total fatalities include a large number of records where the type of vehicle was not identified. SUVs were classified as having one of four "utility" vehicle body types. Source: Governing analysis of NHTSA 2016 FARS data
Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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