Study: Giant Pickups and SUVs More Dangerous to Pedestrians, Obviously

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has claimed that large, blunt-nosed pickups and SUVs pose a greater risk to pedestrians than other vehicle types. It’s quite possibly the most obvious outcome to any study we’ve ever seen and it seems to crop up every few years even though the vehicles in question just keep getting bigger and squarer.

Maybe the IIHS just thought we needed to hear it again, but this is a discussion that’s been ever since people started designing vehicles with pedestrian safety in mind. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t seem overly preoccupied with the topic when it was established by the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 1966, the matter was at the forefront of discussions by the 1980s.

Though one didn’t need a degree in physics to understand that taller vehicles with flat fronts were more likely to run over someone than see them rolling over the hood. Crash data accumulated through the 1970s supported this, simultaneously offering additional insights, and it wasn’t long before you saw the government beginning to mandate designs that took pedestrian safety into consideration.

This is why pop-up headlights completely vanished in the early 2000s. But regulators had decades of data suggesting flat-faced trucks probably weren’t doing jaywalkers any favors either and they weren’t banned. I started bringing up the matter in 2018, citing relevant studies dating back to 2004, to hypothesize that increased roadway fatalities might have something to do with modern vehicle designs. However, the premise that disparities in mass might play a role in car accidents predated me by at least a couple generations.

The IIHS covered the pedestrian angle specifically in 2020, concluding that SUVs and pickups might (you’ll never believe this) pose a greater risk to pedestrians. It followed up in 2022 with a report about how larger vehicles often hit pedestrians while turning. We now appear to be revisiting the original premise.

From the IIHS:

Whatever their nose shape, pickups, SUVs and vans with a hood height greater than 40 inches are about 45 percent more likely to cause fatalities in pedestrian crashes than cars and other vehicles with a hood height of 30 inches or less and a sloping profile, an IIHS study of nearly 18,000 pedestrian crashes found. However, among vehicles with hood heights between 30 and 40 inches, a blunt, or more vertical, front end increases the risk to pedestrians.
“Some of today’s vehicles are pretty intimidating when you’re passing in front of them in a crosswalk,” IIHS President David Harkey said. “These results tell us our instincts are correct: More aggressive-looking vehicles can indeed do more harm.”
Pedestrian crash deaths have risen 80 percent since hitting their low in 2009. Nearly 7,400 walkers — more than 20 people a day — lost their lives in 2021 after being struck by a vehicle. While speeding and poorly designed infrastructure have helped fuel the increase, many safety advocates have also drawn a connection to the growing portion of the U.S. vehicle fleet made up of pickups and SUVs.
Over the past 30 years, the average U.S. passenger vehicle has gotten about 4 inches wider, 10 inches longer, 8 inches taller and 1,000 pounds heavier. Many vehicles are more than 40 inches tall at the leading edge of the hood. On some large pickups, the hoods are almost at eye level for many adults.

Why does it always feel like government regulators (e.g. NHTSA) and nonprofits hoping to influence the industry (e.g. IIHS) are a few years behind the curve? Despite the IIHS having obvious ties to the insurance industry, it has done excellent work in terms of improving crash safety standards and addressing things like headlight glare in recent years. But certain vehicle types posing a bigger danger to foot traffic is old ground, something we’ve all been discussing for at least a couple of decades.

“Manufacturers can make vehicles less dangerous to pedestrians by lowering the front end of the hood and angling the grille and hood to create a sloped profile,” said IIHS Senior Research Transportation Engineer Wen Hu, the lead author of the study. “There’s no functional benefit to these massive, blocky fronts.”

The above reads like someone who has just been exposed to automobiles and has zero experience with the industry. Ground clearance is extremely important to those who intend on taking vehicles off road or happen to live in an area where the country has completely given up on road maintenance. Large trucks are also one of the hottest vehicle trends and the industry has absolutely leaned into this because it offers automakers an opportunity to skirt emissions regulations and better margins on every vehicle sold.

Flat-faced SUVs and pickups also look excellent in comparison to the indistinguishable mass of crossovers that have managed to proliferate our roads. Think about the best-looking SUVs or trucks (new or used) you’ve considered buying. Did any of them have rounded fronts and the same ground clearance as a traditional sedan?

Probably not.

Still, the IIHS study is pretty comprehensive and chock-full of data points to help make its case. You’re encouraged to give it a read if you want the finer details and all the statistics. But the summary is that taller vehicles lead to more severe injuries higher on the body than something built to ride a little closer to the ground. The IIHS is clearly trying to attribute changes in vehicle design and American consumer preferences shifting toward large, blocky vehicles to the 80 percent increase in fatalities. It’s undoubtedly correct in that assertion, even if some of us are betting distracted driving has played an even bigger role.

But it is also setting the stage for regulations that will spoil loads of vehicle designs, nobody really wants, and probably could have been implemented thirty years ago. Based on the IIHS report, vehicles with hoods more than 40 inches off the ground at the leading edge and a grille sloped at an angle of 65 degrees (or less) were 45 percent more likely to cause pedestrian fatalities than vehicles with a similar slope and hood heights of 30 inches or less.

That’s basically every full-sized and HD pickup truck that currently exists, creating a big problem for the industry and any regulators eager to see what could be done. My guess is that this study will make the rounds and we’ll get another one a few years later saying the same thing.

[Images: IIHS]

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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.

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10 of 87 comments
  • Ajla Ajla on Nov 16, 2023

    The issue I have with blaming vehicle design is this chart. US pedestrian deaths were at their nadir in 2009. Light truck market share was increasing since 1991 and they outsold passenger cars around 2000. Vehicles in general also became much more powerful between 1990 and 2009. But, pedestrian deaths fell during most of this period.

    Then there is a massive increase from 2014 to 2016 and another massive increase from 2020 to 2022 (not in my picture). I don't think vehicle design or preferences changed enough during those periods to account for it.

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    • Ajla Ajla on Nov 19, 2023

      I don't doubt the lab results but the correlation doesn't seem very good. Vehicle size has been increasing for 30 years but fatalities decreased for half that time before shooting up.

      Vehicles with taller and blunter front ends became more popular from 1993-2009 but pedestrian deaths fell to the lowest ever. If going from a GMT900 to K2 caused a big increase in fatalities how did going from a Lumina to Envoy make things safer to pedestrians? What is the hood height of something like a 2005 Explorer? It definitely wasn't under 30 inches.

  • Stuki Moi Stuki Moi on Nov 17, 2023

    As long as vehicles are licensed products to begin with, it makes no sense not to make a best-effort attempt to align licensing fees/costs with the total cost the vehicle imposes on the rest of society. Mass and power (and unsprung mass) increases wear/tear on roads. Mass, height, width, shape.. increases risk to others. Height, width, shape, level of opacity (beltline/tint..) imposes visibility costs. Length and width takes up more space. Emissions imposes costs on lungs.... All of which costs are reasonably easy to eyeball. And varies with where the vehicle is used, or if that's too intrusive, where it's being kept. There is no reason, at all, not to use that as a basis for licensing costs, instead of trivially obvious idiocies like the "corporate average" anything that the morons in charge are now wedded to.

    • See 2 previous
    • Jeff Jeff on Nov 18, 2023

      Stuki--When I lived in Texas over 30 years ago the licensing fee was based on the weight of a vehicle but when I lived in Kentucky and now Arizona the fee is based on the blue book value of a vehicle and that blue book value was usually the retail value. The tax based on the value of the vehicle was much higher than the value on the weight even when driving a vehicle with less value because a minimum fee was added as well to the value.

  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.
  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys dudes off the rails on drugs and full of hate and retribution. so is musky.