As Pedestrian Deaths Spike, Safety Group Puts the Spotlight on SUVs

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
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as pedestrian deaths spike safety group puts the spotlight on suvs

We’ve already told you that, while traffic fatalities dropped in 2017, pedestrians deaths showed the opposite trend. Now, preliminary data from 2018 suggests pedestrians deaths rose to their highest point since 1990 last year, and one group claims high-riding crossovers and SUVs are a big part of the problem.

How big? According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs rose 50 percent in the past five years.

Drawing its data from State Highway Safety Offices, the GHSA claims the estimated 6,227 pedestrian fatalities in 2018 represents a 4 percent increase from 2017. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows the same type of fatality rose 35 percent from 2008 to 2017, with motorist and motorcyclist deaths down 6 percent in the same time frame.

Are SUVs, crossovers, and pickups solely to blame for the carnage? Absolutely not. As the average age of an American vehicle is 11 years, there’s still plenty of vehicles with trunks, new and old, piloting the country’s roadways. And passenger cars still represent the largest share (42 percent) of vehicles involved in a fatal pedestrian collision (2,279 in 2017, versus an SUV figure of 1,079). Still, the balance is tilting more heavily towards light trucks as the years progress, and with good reason.

In 2013, 50.1 percent of new vehicles sold in the U.S. were light trucks. Five years later, the take rate was 68.2 percent. The diverging trends in pedestrian and motorist deaths can be attributed to that fact that, as vehicles get safer for occupants, human beings haven’t grown more resilient to 4,000-pound vehicle impacts. And the taller the vehicle, the more likely a struck pedestrian will die.

Combined, the number of single-vehicle pedestrian fatalities linked to pickups, crossovers, and SUVs in 2017 (2,023) nearly reaches that of cars.

While the 50 percent increase in light truck-related pedestrian deaths looks bad, during the same five-year span pedestrian fatalities caused by passenger cars rose 30 percent. Hardly blameless in the rise in fatalities.

So what’s to blame for the rise in deaths? Vehicle type is one factor, but an increase in the total number of miles driven doesn’t help, nor does the population boom in major urban centers. That’s where people are moving, and that’s where an increasing number of vehicles exist. NHTSA data shows a steep increase in the number of urban vehicle miles driven in the past decade, with a corresponding decrease in rural miles.

Motorists are increasingly hitting more pedestrians at night, with the 45 percent increase in deaths during dark hours standing in stark contrast to the 11 percent daylight increase seen between 2008 and 2017. Some 75 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur at night. As for location, 72 percent of pedestrian deaths took place between intersections, away from marked crossings and signals.

While alcohol impairment as a factor in vehicle collisions dropped to its lowest point since (at least) 1982 in 2017, booze remains a big factor in pedestrians deaths. Some 17 percent of drivers involved in a pedestrian fatality were above the legal blood alcohol limit, while, on average, legally drunk pedestrians made up 32 percent of 2017’s fatalities. Victims in age groups ranging from 21 to 54 are most likely to be impaired, with no group in that range falling below 40 percent.

These numbers do not include drug impairment, which would only skew the overall impaired numbers higher (to what degree is hard to say). The most common drug associated with pedestrian deaths is methamphetamine.

Nearly half — 46 percent — of pedestrian deaths in the first half of 2018 came from five states: California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Georgia. Together, they punch above their weight in terms of pedestrian deaths, as they contain only 33 percent of the country’s population. The state with the highest fatality rate is New Mexico, with 3.53 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents in 2017.

While distracted driving and walking did not factor into the GHSA’s report, no one would argue that it’s an issue on the decline. Dealing with that problem won’t be an easy fix, either. Nor will fixing the state of America’s roads. Adding mid-block crossing signals, improving both street and vehicle lighting, and numerous other infrastructure enhancements would help bring the number of deaths lower, but that takes time, money, and conviction on the part of city and state lawmakers.

Mandating automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection would probably help to some degree, but it won’t do anything for the legions of older vehicles plying our roads. Plus, as we saw in early IIHS testing, these systems are certainly not all made equal.

[Image: General Motors, Honda]

Steph Willems
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  • George B George B on Feb 28, 2019

    Conservation of momentum always works out heavily in favor of the vehicle independent of the size of the vehicle. With either a Fiat 500 or a Cadillac Escalade, the pedestrian is going to lose. What matters is the pedestrian not stepping out in front of the car.

    • See 1 previous
    • Gedrven Gedrven on Mar 02, 2019

      @retrocrank Driving in the motorist equivalent of Condition Yellow is correct, but your proposed Law is reasonable only in spirit, not interpreted literally as actually being ready for anything. It's impossible to be ready for that which is impossible physically, namely driving a car at more than a crawl and stopping with zero advance warning.

  • Hummer Hummer on Feb 28, 2019

    It doesn’t help that government planning is pushing people to walk and bike everywhere when the last 30 years people have been used to driving anything over half a mile away.

  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.
  • Stuki Moi "How do you take a small crossover and make it better?Slap the AMG badge on it and give it the AMG treatment."No, you don't.In fact, that is specifically what you do NOT do.Huge, frail wheels, and postage stamp sidewalls, do nothing but make overly tall cuvs tramline and judder. And render them even less useful across the few surfaces where they could conceivably have an advantage over more properly dimensioned cars. And: Small cuvs have pitiful enough fuel range as it is, even with more sensible engines.Instead, to make a small CUV better, you 1)make it a lower slung wagon. And only then give it the AMG treatment. AMG'ing, makes sense for the E class. And these days with larger cars, even the C class. For the S class, it never made sense, aside from the sheer aural visceralness of the last NA V8. The E-class is the center of AMG. Even the C-class, rarely touches the M3.Or 2) You give it the Raptor/Baja treatment. Massive, hypersophisticated suspension travel allowing landing meaningful jumps. As well as driving up and down wide enough stairs if desired. That's a kind of driving for which a taller stance, and IFS/IRS, makes sense.Attempting to turn a CUV into some sort of a laptime wonder, makes about as much sense as putting an America's Cup rig atop a ten deck cruiseship.