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

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

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.

More by Matt Posky

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.

  • ChristianWimmer The interior might be well-made, but the design is just hideous in my opinion. It’s to busy and there’s no simplistic harmony visible in it. In fact I feel that the nicest Lexus interior ever could be found in the original LS400 - because it was rather minimalistic, had pleasing lines and didn’t try to hard. It looked just right. All Lexus interiors which came after it just had bizarre styling cues and “tried to hard” if you know what I mean.
  • THX1136 As a couple of folks have mentioned wasn't this an issue with the DeLorean? I seem to recall that it was claimed you could do a 'minor' buff of the surface and it would be good as new. Guess I don't see why it's a big deal if it can be so easily rectified. Won't be any different than getting out and waxing the car every so often - part of ownership, eh.
  • ToolGuy This kind of thing might be interesting in a racing simulator.
  • FreedMike Hmmm, electric powered vibrations. Is this the long rumored move into products market?
  • MrIcky /Checks date on his calendar- nope, not April 1st.I have a transducer in my home theater seat for sub-bass. Not sure if this is patent worthy.