A new Detroit Free Press/USA Today Network investigation has found that the SUV revolution is a key and leading cause of escalating pedestrian deaths across the United States. Fatalities have reportedly gone up 46% since 2009.

Nearly 6,000 pedestrians have died on or along US roads in 2016, which is about as many Americans who have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. The publication also cited data which shows that SUVs (particularly the blunt-nosed type) are the constant in the increase, and account for a steadily growing proportion of deaths.

Apparently, federal safety regulators have known for years that SUVs are at least twice as likely as cars to kill pedestrians upon impact, and this is due to the vehicles’ higher front-end profile. However, the regulators have done little to reduce deaths or publicise the danger. In fact, the investigation found that a federal proposal to factor pedestrians into vehicle safety ratings has stalled, while several carmakers opposed it.

Dubbed the urban plague, this rising trend of pedestrian death is most prominent in industrial heartland and warm-weather spots, with the top 10 ‘deadliest’ cities including Detroit, New Jersey, Louisiana, Miami, San Bernardino (California), Tampa, Fayetteville (North Carolina) and Phoenix.


Click to enlarge

Meanwhile, there are vehicle safety measures available, which the federal government says could save hundreds of pedestrian lives every year, but they are not widely employed – nor required – by automakers.

Separately, cities can also employ methods to save pedestrians. For example, New York has managed to cut pedestrian fatalities by nearly 50% in the past four years, achieved through enforcement targeted at driver behaviour, lowered speed limits and training for cab drivers. Last year, the city saw its pedestrian deaths drop to 101, which is the lowest number it has recorded in recent years.

Of course, while it might seem obvious that a larger vehicle is capable of inflicting more damage in a crash, some research outfits are hesitant to assign blame for the rise in pedestrian deaths to America’s love of SUVs. This is because each of the 5,987 pedestrians who died in 2016, according to federal data, had his or her own tragic ending.

Many who died were either jaywalking or had alcohol in their systems while trotting on multi-lane roads in urban areas at night. Some could have been distracted (just as vehicle drivers would) by texting or talking on cellphones, although data is lacking to quantify distraction.

However, data and safety experts verified that long-standing common factors in pedestrian deaths, such as alcohol and jaywalking at night, did not account for the growth. So, the SUV component still stands out, and a key factor that’s consistently backed by data is the growing involvement of higher-profile, blunt-nosed SUVs.

A December 2015 report by the US’ national highway traffic safety administration stated that pedestrians were two to three times more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pick-up truck than when struck by a passenger car. That sounds like a statistical recipe for disaster, considering that pick-ups and SUVs now account for 60% of new vehicle sales in the US.

So, how can this problem be curbed in the immediate future? Well, researchers at the US department of transportation’s Volpe Center have found that the use of pedestrian crash avoidance/mitigation systems and features such as automatic emergency braking, could reduce up to 5,000 vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes and 810 fatal crashes per year.

Most car brands have voluntarily committed to installing low-speed AEB systems by 2022, while some offer it as standard – Tesla (up to 99% of cars produced and sold in the US), Mercedes-Benz (96%), Volvo (68%) and Toyota (56%).

In Europe, pedestrian safety is a key rating component. Euro NCAP encourages vehicle manufacturers to consider pedestrian impacts in the vehicle design, which has resulted in innovative countermeasures such as a deployable bonnet (which lifts up slightly to cushion pedestrian impact) and external airbags.