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

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
deadly design suv proliferation a contributing factor in pedestrian deaths study

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.

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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. :(

  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.