Our love of SUVs is killing people in the streets

Increased SUV sales accompany a rise in pedestrian fatalities

Americans are fond of supersized fast-food meals and colossal convenience-store fountain drinks, even though they're clearly bad for our health and U.S. adults keep getting fatter. We also like large vehicles, and our love affair with SUVs is killing people in the streets.

According to a recent investigation by the Detroit Free Press/USA Today, the increase in SUV sales over the past several years coincides with a sharp rise in pedestrian deaths in the U.S. — up 46 percent since 2009, with nearly 6,000 people killed in 2016 alone.

With SUV sales surpassing sedans in 2014 and pickups and SUVs currently accounting for 60 percent of new vehicle sales, it's no wonder Ford announced in April plans to cease U.S. sales of almost all passenger cars. And this followed Fiat Chrysler's move to virtually an all-truck, -SUV and -crossover lineup.

While the Freep/USA Today investigation found that the simultaneous surge in SUV sales and pedestrian deaths comes down to vehicle size, it also points to a lack of action on the part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( NHTSA), even though it knew of the dangers SUVs pose to pedestrians. Also blamed are automakers dragging their feet on implementing active safety features.

Using federal accident data, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety ( IIHS) determined that there was an 81 percent increase in single-vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs between 2009 and 2016. Freep/USA Today's analysis of the same data by counting vehicles that struck and killed pedestrians instead of the number of people killed showed a 69 percent increase in SUV involvement.

As far back as 2001, researchers at Rowan University forecasted a rise in pedestrian deaths as Americans began switching to SUVs. "In the United States, passenger vehicles are shifting from a fleet populated primarily by cars to a fleet dominated by light trucks and vans," the researchers wrote, with light trucks comprising SUVs. "Because light trucks are heavier, stiffer and geometrically more blunt than passenger cars, they pose a dramatically different type of threat to pedestrians."

The Freep/USA Today investigation also revealed that a 2015 NHTSA report found that pedestrians are two to three times "more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pickup than when struck by a passenger car." Based on the study, NHTSA announced plans to revamp its New Car Assessment Program in 2018 for 2019 model-year vehicles to include a new score for pedestrian safety, "but that hasn't happened," the newspapers reported.

Automakers' pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems have become more prevalent in the past few years on a variety of vehicle types, and researchers at the USDOT estimate that these features could reduce up to 5,000 vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes and 810 fatal crashes per year. In 2016, 20 automakers signed an agreement with NHTSA and IIHS to to voluntarily commit to adding low-speed AEB to their fleets by 2022.

But so far, progress has varied among automakers. On certain brands AEB is standard across most or all models ( Tesla, Mercedes-Benz), whereas with others ( Fiat Chrysler and Ford) it's only installed on a single-digit percentage of new cars and others ( Jaguar/ Land Rover and Porsche) none.

"This is a fundamental technology to reaching autonomous vehicles," Shaun Kildare, research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told Freep/USA Today. And since most automakers are working on some form of self-driving, he asked: "Why isn't every automaker putting these in so we know we're not killing people needlessly?"

While it stands to reason that larger, blunter, slower-to-brake vehicles can more seriously injure pedestrians, some researchers point out that there are other factors to consider before pinning blame solely on SUVs for the spike in pedestrian deaths in the U.S. A majority of those killed were jaywalking, had alcohol in their systems and were on multilane roads at night in urban areas.

Distraction due to portable devices on the part of pedestrians as well as drivers is also suspected as a contributing to the rise in deaths. But researchers say there's not enough data to prove that distraction has contributed to the problem, and that common factors such as alcohol and jaywalking at night alone can't account for the increase in pedestrian fatalities.

I don't expect most Americans to reject SUVs and return to sedans to save pedestrians. And I'm currently in the market for a crossover to replace my 2008 Honda CR-V family-mobile since my wife and I are spoiled by a higher driving position, AWD capability and the convenience of a crossover.

But there are consequences to what you eat, drink and drive, and some can be deadly. And as a driver – and as a pedestrian — I'll never look at SUVs the same.

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