Deadly Design: SUV Proliferation a Contributing Factor in Pedestrian Deaths, Study Says

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Sport-utility vehicles and crossovers are great for families who want maximized interior volume and a sense of security, but the high-riding vehicles are a double-edged sword. In addition to being less economical than a sedan with a similar footprint, the design doesn’t bode well for pedestrians. In fact, the proliferation of SUVs may be the largest contributing factor to pedestrian fatalities right now. From 2009 to 2016, fatal single-vehicle crashes involving utility vehicles increased by 81 percent.

That’s disconcerting, considering the number of pedestrian killed on U.S. roads declined by 20 percent since 1975, hitting an all-time low in 2009. However, in 2016 the death toll had climbed back up to the highest levels since 1990. The Governors Highway Safety Association estimated nearly 6,000 people were fatally struck by vehicles last year, with around 4,700 of those deaths occurring in urban or suburban areas. Conversely, those same environments only saw 2,959 deaths in 2009.

The increase in fatalities cannot be contributed entirely to the design of SUVs. Distracted driving, encouraged by smart phones and increasingly complicated infotainment systems, has undoubtedly pressed the issue. But, when a strike does occur, the shape of a vehicle still plays an enormous factor.

Of course, this isn’t entirely new information. Back in 2004, Accident Analysis & Prevention (vol 36, p 295) published research that highlighted the elevated risk of larger vehicles to individuals. Geometrically more blunt than passenger cars, SUV designs were far more likely to impact the chest and head region of a pedestrian. Their shape makes them more likely to drive over a person, rather than hit them in a way that would result in the victim rolling over the vehicle.

In 2015, researchers at the University of Michigan determined that pedestrians are more than three times as likely to be killed when struck by an SUV than when struck by a regular passenger car. Tests indicated that light trucks would force 65 percent of adults and 93 percent of children to the ground during a strike, where they have a good chance of being run over. It also suggested drivers who feel more secure in their own vehicle — one reason people purchase SUVs and large trucks — the less concerned they are likely to be about the safety of those around them.

Unfortunately, mandating that all vehicles become egg-shaped cars with minimal ground clearance isn’t a realistic solution. It’s also not the best one. Avoiding pedestrians altogether is infinitely preferable. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which recently published details on the increase in pedestrian deaths, claimed the best approach is multifaceted.

“Understanding where, when and how these additional pedestrian crashes are happening can point the way to solutions,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “This analysis tells us that improvements in road design, vehicle design and lighting and speed limit enforcement all have a role to play in addressing the issue.”

Noticing that the largest number of pedestrian fatalities occurred on arterial roadways, at night, and outside of a crosswalk, the IIHS suggested adding more well-lit crossing areas. “When people are forced to walk long distances to the nearest signalized intersection, they are more likely to choose the riskier option of sprinting across multiple lanes of traffic,” Harkey explained. “Communities can improve safety by providing more options to safely cross.”

They wouldn’t have to be intersections, either. Pedestrian hybrid beacons allow foot traffic to activate lights at a crossing that can alert drivers to their presence without actually stopping them. But even a couple of white lines and some signage is superior to nothing. Other improvements, like curb extensions or median crossing islands, shortens the distance people are required to walk between lights.

Cities like New York claim great success by prohibiting right turns on red, changing crosswalk timing, and lowering the speed limit. At the start of this year, NYC boasted that pedestrian deaths were at their lowest level since 1910. “The lower speed limit, increased enforcement and safer street designs are all building on each other to keep New Yorkers safe,” Mayor de Blasio said in January of this year. “Now we must deepen this work. Not even a single tragedy on our streets is acceptable.”

The initiative picked up steam three years ago and hasn’t made driving in Manhattan any more enjoyable. But, with the exception of the slightly lower speed limits, most drivers failed to notice any significant changes. “Good design should prioritize the safety of all road users,” Harkey said. “It’s possible to improve streets for pedestrians while still allowing vehicle traffic to get where it needs to go.”

We’re less keen on some of the IIHS suggestions, however. Things like speed cameras may result in slowing motorists down but they’re also a great way to dole out tickets that raise insurance premiums. Likewise, moderate speeds are wonderful for areas with a lot of foot traffic but we don’t see a good reason for national averages to go down across the board. Vehicular safety systems also seem to hold the potential to reduce fatalities, but relying on them is foolhardy. Autonomous systems haven’t proven themselves as a worthy successor to an attentive driver and existing driving aids should really only serve as an early warning system. Even if a vehicle does have pedestrian detection with emergency braking, a good driver shouldn’t need to rely on it.

Instead of lower speed limits and more ticketing, we’d like to see better illumination for both vehicles and the road itself, more crossing areas, and some personal accountability. Drivers and pedestrians both need to take every precaution to be as safe as humanly possible, as your extra-dangerous SUV can’t harm anyone it doesn’t come into contact with.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • TomLU86 TomLU86 on May 09, 2018

    In 1985, Car and Driver noted the 'new' 1985 VW GTI's A-pillar could 'hide' people or cars... When I got an 86 GTI, that was one of the few things I didn't like, but got used to it. I still have an 86 GTI. It's A-pillar is less obtrusive than most cars I am in nowadays.

  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on May 09, 2018

    What I find odd is that people really think that they are getting more space in a CUV over a mid-sized sedan. We take a long road trip every year to sight see. Only once have we taken the Rogue instead of the Avenger. The Rogue is way under powered for the mountains and the CVT calls home sick after getting hot in the mountains but my main point is we get the same coolers and luggage in the car as we do the CUV and we have gotten 27mpg with the Nissan and over 30 with the Dodge V6. There is also better passenger space. Other than sitting higher I see no advantage of a CUV. Now, when we have a lot of crap to take we take the gen1 Durango but that gets at best 18mpg hwy. 13.5 if you are towing a car on a trailer behind. :(