By on May 8, 2018

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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42 Comments on “Deadly Design: SUV Proliferation a Contributing Factor in Pedestrian Deaths, Study Says...”

  • avatar

    Blah blah blah, if a percentage of cars are involved in accidents and the percentage of SUVs grows in the automotive landscape, then yes more SUVs will be involved in accidents.

    If pedestrians would look up from their phone they might be less inclined to step into the line of fire of the 2+ ton, highly visible mass that operates within a specific boundary laid out on the ground.

    • 0 avatar

      “if a percentage of cars are involved in accidents and the percentage of SUVs grows in the automotive landscape, then yes more SUVs will be involved in accidents”

      I see you also know how numbers work.

    • 0 avatar

      I do think it’s interesting they mention how phone can distract drivers, but fail to mention how much more frequently they distract pedestrians, not to mention earbuds removing the audio cues.

    • 0 avatar

      Having been hit by a car, I can assure you of the following:

      1. I was not on my phone.

      2. The driver was not on his phone, but was sleep deprived.

      3. I was in a crosswalk, with the walk indicator active at time of entry, time of crossing, and time of impact.

      4. I was not wearing dark clothing.

      5. I was with a group of several people, some of whom came close to being hit, and were lucky enough to dodge.

      6. There were no drugs or alcohol involved in the part of anybody.

      Now that I’ve eliminated the victim blaming that I’m almost certain you’ll engage in to maintain your position, I can state this with absolute certainty: if the driver was piloting an SUV, I would be dead.

      The vehicle’s bumper, thankfully, impacted me just below the head of my fibula on my right leg. This caused me to fall into the hood of the car, with my hands ending up near the windshield wipers.

      Attempting to hold onto windshield wipers does not stop you from flying off the hood of the car once the driver slams on the breaks in a panic.

      Friends described my landing as involving a “thud” as I hit the asphalt, although the Russian judge did award me points for the dismount.

      I consider myself very lucky, and this is the closest I have ever come to death.

      This was over 20 years ago. If the same thing happened today, odds are it would have been an SUV and I would have been dead.

      Frankly, I think we need to figure out how to make cars more appealing to the masses. Perhaps if there was some way to combine the ride height and frontal design of a sedan, with the cargo area of an SUV. A vehicle that would suit everyone, no matter what their station in life was.

      • 0 avatar

        “Perhaps if there was some way to combine the ride height and frontal design of a sedan with the cargo area of an SUV”………….drum roll please,

        How about a station wagon. How quaint.

  • avatar

    There are places near me that I don’t walk or bike, especially with my kids. It is what it is. Redesigning cars because some idiot can’t see a 2000kg monstrosity coming at them is pointless. I guess you could revisit the whole transportation system, but you can’t fix stupid/lack of situational awareness.

    • 0 avatar

      Sure, there are always going to be some roads that are less comfortable to walk or bike on than others, but just throwing up your hands and saying nothing can be done is ridiculous. Most roads can be improved with better lighting, adding (or fixing) sidewalks, bike lanes, etc. The typical argument against bike/ped improvements is that no one walks or bikes anyway (except maybe poor people), but if the roads weren’t so hostile to anyone other than people in cars then maybe they would.

      • 0 avatar

        Yep. And some of us have dogs that need walking too. There’s no excuse not to make city streets hospitable to all users, including the ones on the sidewalks. Oh yeah: and HAVE SIDEWALKS.

  • avatar

    When I was a child I was taught pedestrian safety by my parents and teachers. I seem to remember that I was taught to wear bright clothing (white or reflective at night), watch both ways before crossing, and always assume the car driver is an idiot and won’t see you. I guess with the recent changes in school curriculum and single parent households, children are too busy learning about white privilege and toxic masculinity to get lessons about how to walk safely from place to place. Of course it probably does not help that most children today rarely get practice at walking anywhere, but are instead taken to school and activities in the back of 3 ton SUVs and pickups, which are purchased because their parent(s) feels safer with so much metal around them.

    • 0 avatar

      It is shocking how many pedestrians walk with their back to traffic, with headphones on, in dark clothing. Since most people don’t WANT to die, I blame it on lack of education.

    • 0 avatar

      I am with you. This is Darwin awards time. Pedestrians need to learn to not put their delicate bodies on a collision course with vehicles and expect the driver to not hit them. I never do. I don’t gamble with my life like that. I also like to be considerate to drivers and not force them to slow or stop for me. That recent night fatality with the self driven car deserves mention. The video show an empty road, and that pedestrian put herself on a collision course with as I recall the only car on the road, the self driven car.

  • avatar

    Today I watched to millennial aged males CONFIDENTLY strut across a 4 lane wide street where both sides had the green light, causing traffic on both sides to screech to a halt as these 2 fools passed. Didn’t break stride in the slightest as the cars approached.

    • 0 avatar

      I see that and far too often, they don’t even look. Fer crying out loud, at least see it coming.

    • 0 avatar

      If you’re going to cross, you really ought to do so tall and confidently. In a manner that draws maximum attention to your presence. For soft trafficants, the prime, and honestly only relevant, directive on the road, is you need to be seen. If you are seen, nothing else really matters.

      Ticked off car drivers will virtually never willfully run you over. I’m sure it has happened, but you are so far off into psychopath-ville that the risk is little greater than that off Jeff Dahmer deciding you’re the one he wants for a snack that evening. Instead, drivers will just honk and scream and yell. Which is, honestly, a great big whatever, considering how easy it is to make up for lost time in a multi hundred horsepower vehicle.

      OTOH, the ones who do kill pedestrians, are nice, well meaning dudley-do-rights who proudly vote for sidewalks and bike lanes, but who just happened not to see you at just that critical moment.

      So, either don’t cross, or be as irritatingly visible as possible. Toss in a flashbang ahead of you, if possible. That ought to get the attention of even a botcar with it’s driver asleep at the wheel.

  • avatar

    I’d love to see data on how many pedestrian & car accidents had the pedestrian in the giant blind spot created by the huge A-pillers on modern cars. I have more than once been surprised by someone in a crosswalk that I simply couldn’t see because they were walking behind where my A-piller was. I have resorted to moving my head around like a lunatic checking behind the A-piller whenever I approach a cross-walk now.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      My wife hates that aspect of her Equinox. I hate the entire thing.

    • 0 avatar

      Another good reason for pedestrians to not initiate a collision course with vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve had entire cars vanish behind my A-pillar at a 4-way stop as we both came to the intersection. Fortunately for me, I’m cognizant enough to do the head bob around the pillar as well as making sure my line of sight as a pedestrian to a driver does not cross that blind spot.

  • avatar

    SUVs as the “Largest contributing factor” ? I don’t think so. It’s no coincidence that the death rates spiked right around the time smart phones came out. Pedestrians are just not paying attention to their surroundings.

  • avatar

    The parents are too busy teaching their kids the correct pronouns for their peers so they don’t get detention for being bigots, no time to teach them how to look both ways before crossing the f***ing street.

    -the last part is a paraphrase of a movie quote, full disclosure.

  • avatar

    Ultra-massive vehicular-like computerized cocoons being half-assedly driven by distracted morons that then smash into slack-jawed idiots who are lost in their bubble of smart-phone generated sights and sounds while walking to nowhere. Yeah, whodda thunk it?

  • avatar

    after reading many comments here implying that killing people is OK because they’re annoying – I think strcter jail time for killing people with cars is in order. The other thing that SUVs do is ride up on car bumpers, thus defeating the idea of crumple zones etc..

    It would be nice if insurance rates reflected the additional unnecessary deaths caused by these vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      > after reading many comments here implying that killing people is OK because
      > they’re annoying – I think strcter jail time for killing people with cars
      > is in order. The other thing that SUVs do is ride up on car bumpers, thus
      > defeating the idea of crumple zones etc..

      >It would be nice if insurance rates reflected the additional unnecessary
      > deaths caused by these vehicles.

      I fantasize about a law that would require all cars to have roof mounted spears that would pass safely above standard height vehicles but would impale drivers of high and mighty SUVs to even the odds. Totally unrealistic, of course, but I bet that would make SUV drivers drive defensively…

      • 0 avatar

        There’s no reason to be all weird and vindictive about it.

        Instead, crash standards should simply change from slamming cars into walls, to instead slamming them into pedestrians ( as in artificial ones…..), cyclists, motorcyclists, Miatas, Camrys, V12 Benzes, and various CUVs, SUVs and trucks. Then rate the tested vehicle on how well it preserved the occupants of THE OTHER vehicles. Which is the only thing that requires any sort of legislation, as that damage is inherently external to the one considering which vehicle to buy.

      • 0 avatar

        I read a comment in a magazine decades ago that said if you really want to alter driver behavior, put a visible dagger in the middle of the steering wheel pointed at the driver’s chest rather than an airbag.
        Might work for some drivers, but I have my doubts.

  • avatar

    Is it just increasing pedestrian fatalities the S(tupid) U(gly)Vehicle is responsible for? An oncoming driver executed a left turn right in front of me, claiming he couldn’t see me in the curb lane because of the Mercedes Mastodon stopped waiting to turn in the lane beside me. 100% his fault, but it totalled my Jetta.

    • 0 avatar

      @Whatnext…I hope just the Jetta got smashed, and you, and yours are okay.

      The situation you describe, happens everyday. Yes, the guy making the left shouldn’t have committed to the turn before ensuring that you weren’t coming through at the curb lane . Agreed..large vehicles in the left turn lane, do make this particular urban maneuver challenging . That all being said, the dude that hung the left in front of you is 100 percent at fault..Not the Mercedes.

    • 0 avatar

      But could you see around the Mastodon? This happens to me all the time also, and I always assume there’s someone turning left in front of the Mastodon I can’t see around. It’s just the world we car drivers have to live in.

  • avatar

    Volvo’s solution: City Safety pedestrian detection with auto braking, standard. I thought this was a bit gimmicky (only works under 19 mph, doesn’t work if you’re accelerating, etc.) until one day my wife was coming home in the XC60 and reported that it had just kicked in at the intersection a block from our house, stopping for a pedestrian she hadn’t even seen and preventing him from splatting like a bug. Apparently Volvo developed this system when the Swedish government set a goal of no city pedestrian deaths by 2022 or something. It actually works.

    • 0 avatar

      2 wrongs don’t make a right! distracted drivers (sometimes drunk/high), distracted walkers(sometimes drunk/high) equals more accidents more deaths! same thing with motorcycle deaths, too many distractions, drivers not really watching for pedestrians or motorcycles or bike cyclist. too much multitasking going on not to mention EVERYBODY IS IN A HURRY!!!

    • 0 avatar

      City Safety is awesome.

  • avatar

    I think the majority here agree with this, but I can’t resist saying it anyway. Barring edge cases, I say that if a pedestrian gets hit by a car, it should be the pedestrians fault.

    Why? Cars drive on roads. They stay on roads. People can roam wherever they like, and cross the street without warning, and pretty much follow no rules when maneuvering around the world.

    You want to cross the street? Make damn sure the cars are not going to hit you. If you dont’, Darwin award, and your insurance should pay the driver for duress caused by your stupidity. If you aren’t fearfully respectful of the danger of a 2 ton machine zooming along at any speed, your an idiot.

    These are probably the same people who get eaten off their bikes in alaska, and try and pet buffalo.

    Yes yes, there are edge cases where it’s the drivers fault. But damn we need to stop this hatred of the automobile. It has provided more personal freedom to see the world than anything else yet. Governments of the world need to stop treating it like a disease.

    • 0 avatar

      Jaywalking, also known as “walking,” is an offense made up in response to lobbying by automakers at the turn of the last century. You have the 3000 pound missile, the pedestrian has only their shirt. Don’t be a rectal orifice: take your driving privilege seriously and fulfill your responsibilities. Drive at a speed you can easily stop from, LOOK for people about to cross, yield the right of way (they have it and you don’t), and make eye contact so they know you see them and aren’t going to smush them.

      Getting a dog that needs a lot of walking quickly made me realize that a) I used to drive like an a-hole and b) the traffic engineers in my town are either idiots or are awarding each other points every time a pedestrian gets maimed.

    • 0 avatar


      If we adopt your approach, can we also agree that the rules change slightly in residential neighborhoods, where people might be going for a walk without sidewalks, or children might be involved?

      Can we also agree the the rule gets flipped completely (driver is responsible) in parking lots? I encounter far too many drivers who think the pavement 10 feet from the front of the store is a road (it’s not) with no speed limit, are surprised to see people walking there, and think they (the driver) have the right of way even when they (the driver), for example, turned onto that stretch of pavement 80 feet away from me (pedestrian/shopper) when I was already halfway across.

      Bonus rant to the world: I blame the Art Center College of Design for killing the passenger car and pushing consumers into crossovers/SUV’s.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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. :(

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