Automated Driving Systems Aren't Ready to Save Pedestrians: Safety Group

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
automated driving systems arent ready to save pedestrians safety group

Pedestrian fatalities in the United States climbed sharply over the past decade. Between 2008 and 2017, which constitutes the most recent data available, on-foot fatalities increased 35.4 percent — despite walking not growing in popularity. All told, the United States lost 49,340 people within the timeframe; about 13 people per day.

While still lower than vehicular deaths, the influx of pedestrian fatalities is cause for alarm for many. Forty countries, backed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, recently agreed to a resolution requiring passenger cars and light commercial vehicles to come equipped with automated braking systems starting as early as 2020. The primary goal? Improving pedestrian safety.

Not everyone is in agreement as to the solution’s effectiveness, however. Earlier this month, the National Complete Streets Coalition released Dangerous by Design 2019 to highlight the country’s plight — and suggested that the old ways might still be the best.

The document, sponsored by Smart Growth America, attributed the increase in pedestrian deaths to a myriad of factors. Larger vehicles, like SUVs and pickups, have grown in popularity and have a tendency to significantly lower the survivability rate of struck pedestrians; poorer people, more dependent upon walking, have begun shifting to suburban areas; and distracted driving is creating is becoming an increasingly serious problem due to drivers being inundated by complex multimedia systems and their own mobile devices.

However, Smart Growth America’s biggest concerns revolve around poor infrastructure design. The group claims points to a severe lack of pedestrian consideration in most roads built after the 1960s. If you want an example, note how infrequently you’ll see sidewalks and dedicated pedestrian crossings in and around strip malls. Therefore, the organization’s solution is less concerned with mandating advanced driving aids than it is with improving the physical infrastructure of roads. That means things like more sidewalks with a substantive buffer between pedestrians and vehicles, lower speed limits in residential areas, and additional dedicated crosswalks.

There’s a case to be made here. One of Uber’s autonomous test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian last year. The victim had chosen to cross at a less than ideal area that resembled a crosswalk, but wasn’t. Meanwhile, the car failed to identify the woman early enough to provide sufficient time for braking and the safety driver was reportedly glued to a video playing on their phone.

“The fact is, we’re a long way out from putting a lot of faith into new technology to protect us,” said Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition and co-author of the study. “But we can protect ourselves now with tools we have that can lead to safer street designs.”

As for which parts of America are suffering the worst, the south leads by a wide margin. According to Smart Growth’s Pedestrian Danger Index (and most other studies) Florida is the worst offender by far. After Florida, the report ranks the most dangerous states for walking as Alabama, Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and South Carolina. The group is asking the federal government to make a change.

From Smart Growth America:

Our federal government needs to take the lead on prioritizing safer streets. Federal dollars and policies helped create these unsafe streets in the first place. And federal funds, policies, and guidance have a significant role to play in fixing these streets and in designing the streets we’ll build tomorrow.

We call on Congress to adopt a strong, federal Complete Streets policy that requires state departments of transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to consistently plan for all people who use the street, including the most vulnerable users.

We call on state DOTs and MPOs to put people first and give their organizations the tools and training they need to create transportation networks that serve all users.

We call on the over 1,400 communities that have adopted a Complete Streets policy to turn their vision into practice and implementation.

Considering the group’s bread and butter involves city planning and promoting investments in infrastructure, it’s unsurprising to see it take this path. However, it’s not one we’ve seen echoed within the auto industry or by most elected officials. The NHTSA and most other regulatory agencies are pushing advanced driving aids as the most logical way to bolster vehicular and pedestrian safety. Meanwhile, roadway infrastructure advocacy is placed on the back burner, unless it serves to help vehicle-to-infrastructure data relays.

Truthfully, most of Smart Growth America’s solutions involve redesigning roads to better suit the needs of pedestrians and cyclists at the expense of cars. While that sounds obnoxious for drivers, fewer opportunities to encounter a surprise jaywalker or rogue bicycle are always welcome.

If you want the extended version of the the National Complete Streets Coalition’s paper, but don’t feel like reading it, they’ve provided a comprehensive webinar (below). It’s incredibly dry and fairly preachy but has some interesting takes on the pedestrian problem and solutions that don’t revolve around mandating vehicular autonomy. It also goes into exceptional depth regarding national accident statistics and what some parts of the country are doing to mitigate it.

[Images: Smart Growth America]

Join the conversation
7 of 38 comments
  • Cbrworm Cbrworm on Feb 19, 2019

    I hate to even mention this, I would certainly never run someone over. However; I have seen an incredible increase in the number of people who glare at me and then walk out in front of my car to cross the street. This is on a fairly major highway with a 45mph speed limit and traffic moving at least 10 MPH faster. They don't want to walk to the nearest intersection to cross and they also don't want to wait for traffic to stop, so they make eye contact with you and then cross to get to the plaza directly across the street. There have been cases where someone walks out in front of me and I have to brake so abruptly that I am worried I am going to cause a multi-car pileup. I agree that distracted walking is a huge contributing factor, I also believe that a lot of pedestrians are taking big chances, being quite confident that someone won't run them over.

    • See 4 previous
    • Fordson Fordson on Feb 19, 2019

      @SunnyvaleCA Which type?

  • JMII JMII on Feb 19, 2019

    I think massive A pillars are to blame. I nearly hit two different people last week as were completely hidden in my A pillar. In both cases I was approaching a red light, so I slowed to a stop and went to turn right. They walked/rode right in front of me! I know pedestrians have the right of way but when you are in this situation you tend to focus left at on coming traffic assuming anyone on the corner of the street will stay put. One was guy was on his bike and thus wasn't on the corner when I pulled up. The other guy was walking, so I saw him but assumed he would stay there until I pulled away. In both cases I glanced right before moving but saw nobody - as they were hidden by the A pillar. The guy on the bike zipped by with a slight weave to miss me, while the walker took a few steps back. Both were close calls but I honestly didn't see them due to the A pillar blocking my view. I wonder if modern SUV/CUVs are worse in this regard. This happened in my 'Vette which is low and has decent visibility except the front quarters due to the A pillar and fender design.

  • Dave M. Although the effective takeover by Daimler is pooped upon, this is one they got right. I wasn't a fan of the LHs, mostly due to reported mechanical, NVH and build quality issues, but I though Chrysler hit it out of the park with the LXs. The other hyped release that year was the Ford Five Hundred, which, while a well-built car with superior interior space, couldn't hold a candle to the 300.
  • Art Vandelay I always liked those last FWD 300's. Been ages since I've seen one on the road though. Lots of time in the RWD ones as rentals. No complaints whatsoever.
  • Cardave5150 I've had 2 different 300's - an '08 300SRT and an '18 300C. Loved them both a LOT, although, by the time I had the second one, I wasn't altogether thrilled with the image of 300's out on the street, as projected by the 3rd or 4th buyers of the cars.I always thought that the car looked a little stubby behind the rear wheels - something that an extra 3-4" in the trunk area would have greatly helped.When the 300 was first launched, there were invitation-only meet-and-greets at the dealerships, reminding me of the old days when new model-year launches were HUGE. At my local dealer, they were all in formalwear (tuxes and elegant dresses) with a nice spread of food. They gave out crystal medallions of the 300 in a sweet little velvet box (I've got mine around the house somewhere). I talked to a sales guy for about 5 minutes before I asked if we could take one of the cars out (a 300C with the 5.7 Hemi). He acted like he'd been waiting all evening for someone to ask that - we jumped in the car and went out - that thing, for the time, seemed to fly.Corey - when it comes time for it, don't forget to mention the slightly-stretched wheelbase 300 (I think it was the 300L??). I've never found one for sale (not that I've looked THAT hard), as they only built them for a couple of years.
  • Jkross22 "I’m doing more for the planet by continuing to drive my vehicle than buying a new one for strictly frivolous reasons."It's not possible to repeat this too much.
  • Jeff S Got to give credit to Chrysler for putting the 300 as a rear wheel drive back on the market. This will be a future classic.