SUVs twice as deadly

A recent assessment of pedestrian crash data (reported by New Scientist and Transportation Alternatives) finds that large SUVs and vans are two to three times more likely to kill a pedestrian or cyclist upon impact than regular cars. Another paper estimates pedestrian fatality rates two to three times as high for light trucks as for cars.

Most of this increased risk is due to the vehicles’ bulk and high, aggressive front end designs (QT video and discussion — from a car reviewer, no less). The high, square front end hits higher on a pedestrian’s body, not only inflicting damage directly onto vital organs but also increasing the risk of a pedestrian going under, and therefore getting run over by, the car. Simply put, an SUV with bull bars is about the deadliest design possible for a car (short of arming the car).

The European Union and Australia have adopted safety tests and regulations to ensure that car designs aren’t unnecessarily deadly for pedestrians. Regulators in the U.S. estimate that simple changes in vehicle design — changes already in place on new Volvo and VW vehicles, for instance — could save at least 300 pedestrian lives every year. Yet, under the first Bush administration (updated link, #9), the NHTSA decided that pedestrians’ lives were expendable and not worth the effort. In the years since, thousands of pedestrians have died needlessly.

Meanwhile, the automakers’ recent voluntary initiative to improve SUV safety does nothing to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Blocker (Bradsher) bars prevent trucks from riding above cars by engaging the cars’ steel safety cages, but do nothing to prevent a pedestrian from going under; similarly, side curtain air bags should have been required safety equipment anyhow. Insofar as the Bush administration was marginally involved in raising the question, I suppose it’s a good thing.

From the New Scientist article: …The UK Department of Transport says new rules coming into force in Europe in October 2005 will force makers of “cars and car-derived vans” to meet strict new pedestrian protection standards. “They will have to use new materials to soften up some of the areas around the bonnet so they deform controllably in an impact,” says a DoT spokesperson…

Full article:

Published Friday, December 12, 2003, in New Scientist

SUVs double pedestrians’ risk of death

By Paul Marks

Someone struck by a large sports utility vehicle is more than twice as
likely to die as someone hit by a saloon car travelling at the same speed.
The finding by American researchers will add further weight to calls for
SUVs — sporty vehicles with a high, blunt-fronted body atop a broad chassis
— to be made safer.

In March, Jeffrey Runge, the head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration (NHTSA), called on the automobile industry to make SUVs safer
(New Scientist print edition, 8 March).

Their high centre of gravity makes them more likely to roll over. According
to the NHTSA, 36 per cent of fatal SUV crashes in the US in 1998 involved a
rollover, compared with only 15 per cent in cars.

Now, by putting numbers to the risk pedestrians face from SUVs, research
published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention (vol 36, p 295)
will place more pressure on the makers to act. “This paper is very valuable
in putting statistics on the risk from SUVs,” says Matthew Avery of the
crash lab at Thatcham, a motor insurance industry research centre in
Berkshire, UK.

Forgotten crash victims

The proportion of SUVs on the roads is increasing in both the US and Europe.
Half the passenger vehicles being sold each year in the US are now classed
as light trucks and vans (LTVs), a class that includes SUVs, pickups and
light freight vehicles.

But no one has ever performed a broad analysis of the risk the burgeoning
LTV fleet poses to people on the sidewalks, says Clay Gabler, a mechanical
engineer specialising in vehicle technology at Rowan University in
Glassboro, New Jersey. “In the US, pedestrians are the forgotten crash
victims,” he says.

So with colleague Devon Lefler, Gabler set out to investigate risk to
pedestrians from various types of LTV design. From four accident databases
in the US they extracted information about accidents where one vehicle
collided with one pedestrian. “LTVs are heavier, stiffer and geometrically
more blunt than passenger cars and pose a dramatically different type of
threat to pedestrians,” says Gabler.

The pair looked at which LTVs posed the most threat (see graph). They found
that all LTVs have a higher risk of injuring pedestrians in an impact than
cars. A pedestrian struck by a large van is three times as likely to die as
someone hit by a car at the same speed. Pedestrians struck by large SUVs are
twice as likely to die.

“The probability of serious head and thoracic injury is substantially
greater than with a car,” says Gabler. As they are lower in profile, cars
tend to cause leg injuries, which are less likely to kill than head

Radical design changes

Making SUVs less dangerous to pedestrians will require radical changes to
their design. “One way to reduce head injuries from SUV impacts would be to
replace the blunt front end with a sloping, more aerodynamic one, making
them more car-like. But this won’t be popular with SUV buyers who like their
rugged, off-road look,” Gabler says.

Meanwhile motor industry research is focused on making impacts between cars
and SUVs safer, says Michael Cammisa of the Association of International
Automobile Manufacturers, in Arlington, Virginia.

The UK Department of Transport says new rules coming into force in Europe in
October 2005 will force makers of “cars and car-derived vans” to meet strict
new pedestrian protection standards. “They will have to use new materials to
soften up some of the areas around the bonnet so they deform controllably in
an impact,” says a DoT spokesperson.

But in the US, pedestrians are losing the safety battle. “Despite over 4000
pedestrian deaths a year, there are no pedestrian impact safety regulations
under serious consideration in the US,” Gabler says.


One thought on “SUVs twice as deadly

  1. A 2002 article in the British Medical Journal, written by biomechanics researchers from the University of Virginia, argues that consideration of pedestrian safety in vehicle design is a crucial public health measure:

    Designing road vehicles for pedestrian protection — Crandall et al. 324 (7346): 1145 — BMJ
    The lack of effort devoted to vehicle modifications for pedestrian safety has stemmed primarily from a societal view that the injury caused by a large, rigid vehicle hitting a small, fragile pedestrian cannot be significantly reduced by alterations to the vehicle structure. Crash engineers, however, have long been aware that the same principles of car safety design that have produced enormous benefits for vehicle occupants can be extended to provide a safer environment for pedestrians during impact with the exterior of a vehicle.

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