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?
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.
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