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Better car design could prevent pedestrian deaths, says NTSB report

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Americans buy SUVs because they seem safer. But they’re more likely to kill people who aren’t in cars

A majority of the vehicles sold in the U.S. are SUVs and trucks. But when SUVs hit people, they’re more likely to die.

Pedestrian deaths keep rising in the U.S. For two years in a row, around 6,000 pedestrians have been killed each year, a figure that’s higher than it’s been since 1990. After a major federal investigation, officials think they understand why—it’s the way our cars are designed.

In 2016, after almost a decade of watching pedestrian deaths increase, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launched its first investigative report dedicated to pedestrian safety. Over the next year, the agency, which often investigates major crashes that involve trains or aircraft, took a closer look at 15 vehicular crashes where pedestrians were killed.

The number was chosen because an average of 15 pedestrians were being killed every day in the U.S. in 2016. By the time the investigation was completed in 2017, that number had increased to 16 pedestrians per day.

The findings, which were presented this week, highlight several potential ways for the U.S. to reduce pedestrian deaths. But what’s striking about the report is how the NTSB is focusing its recommendations on changing the way the U.S. makes and sells cars, including developing “performance test criteria for vehicle designs that reduce injuries to pedestrians.”

This would mean the federal government will finally address the role that sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are playing in the deaths of vulnerable street users.

For years, pedestrian advocates have voiced concern about SUVs. Sales of SUVs have steadily increased over the last decade, and SUVs and light trucks now make up over 60 percent of the cars bought by Americans each year.

The way SUVs are designed, with not only a larger body but also a higher carriage, means that pedestrians are more likely to suffer deadly blows to the torso. The higher clearance also means pedestrians can get trapped beneath the vehicle instead of being pushed onto the hood of the vehicle or out of the way.

Speed, which has also been cited as a factor in the increase of pedestrian deaths, is a greater concern for SUVs as well because these vehicles have more horsepower than smaller cars.

In May, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that examined federal crash data concluded that “fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs increased 81 percent, more than any other type of vehicle,” between 2009 and 2016. Although cars and SUVs seemed to hit people at the same rate, when SUVs hit people they were more likely to die.

The SUV factor is likely why pedestrian deaths have steadily increased even as traffic deaths have slightly decreased over the same period. Although SUVs are much safer for the humans riding inside of them, SUVs are deadlier for the humans they strike.

On July 1, a major Detroit Free Press report showed that not only were SUVs contributing to a higher pedestrian death rate, automakers and safety agencies have known this for years and hadn’t done anything to address the problem.

The story also noted that federal agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had blamed the uptick in deaths on distracted walking and legalized marijuana when in fact their own research had shown as early as 2015 that pedestrians are “more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pickup.”

As the Detroit Free Press story noted, car designers in other countries have proposed revolutionary safety features like pedestrian detection systems, exterior airbags, and changes to hood design to protect other users of the road.

Those same recommendations to consider the safety of all people, not just the safety of drivers and passengers, have received major pushback from U.S. automakers.

But one of the NTSB recommendations would address that issue by giving car buyers access to pedestrian safety data, theoretically driving the demand for safer vehicles. “The public would benefit from knowing that the model vehicle they are considering for purchase has pedestrian-safe design characteristics,” reads the report, “and their choices could in turn affect the implementation of pedestrian safety systems in new car designs.”

Automation—which has been championed by tech companies as a way to reduce pedestrian deaths—is only tangentially mentioned in the NTSB report, as part of a recommendation to create testing standards for pedestrian-detection systems. In a separate investigation, the NTSB is also examining the pedestrian-detection failure that made international headlines—the March crash where Uber’s self-driving vehicle (an SUV) killed Elaine Herzberg as she walked her bike across a Tempe, Arizona street.

The NTSB report also includes clear recommendations for infrastructural changes that have been proven to slow vehicular traffic and reduce conflicts between drivers and walkers, including working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track and highlight where such interventions might save the most lives.

But while road diets and curb extensions might make streets safer for pedestrians to use, those changes need to be paired with more major reforms in a country that has prioritized the fast movement of larger and more powerful vehicles which can so easily drive onto curbs and over medians meant to protect pedestrians.

A few days before Uber’s high-profile crash, there was another less-publicized crash in a nearby Phoenix suburb. Within a matter of minutes, a single SUV driven by a 27-year-old struck two different groups of older adults walking together, one couple in a crosswalk and one couple on the sidewalk. The driver lived. All four of the pedestrians died.