Investigative reporters conclude that America's love of SUVs is killing pedestrians

Dodge Ram truick
CC BY 2.0 Ram pickup truck/ Lloyd Alter

People are shocked, shocked to find that big moving walls of steel are dangerous.

For a few years, the talking point is that “pedestrian deaths are on the rise because of distracted walking.” There was zero statistical evidence that this was the case; here at TreeHugger, we put the blame squarely on big, flat-fronted SUVs and pickup trucks, writing Make SUVs and light trucks as safe as cars or get rid of them. Or, more explicitly, Ban SUVs.

Now, everyone is shocked by a new article Death on foot: America's love of SUVs is killing pedestrians by Eric D. Lawrence, Nathan Bomey and Kristi Tanner of the Detroit Free Press, which implies that this was some kind of secret, with their subhead America's love for SUVs is killing pedestrians, and federal safety regulators have known for years. Their key points:

Jeep vs Sedan© Detroit Free Press


  • Federal safety regulators have known for years that SUVs, with their higher front-end profile, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers and children they hit, yet have done little to reduce deaths or publicize the danger.

  • A federal proposal to factor pedestrians into vehicle safety ratings has stalled, with opposition from some automakers.
    The rising tide of pedestrian deaths is primarily an urban plague that kills minorities at a disproportionate rate.

statistics on deaths© New Scientist

They imply that this information has been buried and that implementation of safety measures have stalled. But this information has been out there for years; we have been showing this graph on TreeHugger since 2015. As we previously reported, Years ago, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of UMTRI concluded…

…that a pedestrian hit by an LTV (light truck vehicle, which includes minivans, pickup trucks and SUVs) is more than three times more likely to be killed than one hit by a car – less due to the vehicle’s greater mass than due to its height and the design of its front end.

injuries© UMTRI

Or as I wrote:

Look at the distribution of injuries of AIS3+ (Abbreviated Injury Scale, serious to severe to critical). With LTVs, 86 percent of pedestrians end up as hood ornaments or get cooked on the grill. And we let this happen, we let people sit way up where they cannot even see over the long hood of these vehicles, pushing a giant wall down our city streets, which are filled increasingly with aging boomers who cannot jump out of the way.

Instead of actually fixing the problem (which is really hard, especially for the popular pickup trucks), the auto industry has worked hard to criminalize walking and shift the blame on to pedestrians.

We have even shown the auto dealers funding campaigns by orthopaedic surgeons to teach pedestrians how to walk. We have seen Ford invent Petextrians.

The best example yet of how the issue is manipulated: a recent article on road calming measures in New Jersey, designed to slow down cars and reach Vision Zero, is entirely framed through the perspective of distraction, from the title "City narrows roads because you won't stop texting while walking" to the content that suggests that it’s all because of distracted pedestrians. “Because the practice is so widespread, the city has also started to make structural changes to its busiest roadways to try to slow drivers down in popular walking spots around town.”

The Free Press article says that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is addressing the issue, sort of.

In a statement to the Free Press this week, the agency said it is "working on a proposal for a standard that would require protection against head and leg injuries for pedestrians impacted by the front end of vehicles… The agency noted that it is studying interactions between motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists, distractions, and strategies that states can use to protect pedestrians and improve education on "this important topic."

speed and death rate© Brian Tefft AAA

They note also that besides having the big flat high snout, SUVs and pickups are more powerful and tend to be driven at higher speeds, and as we have noted, the death rate dramatically increases with speed.

active bonnetEuro NCAP Active Bonnet/Public Domain

Finally, they discuss how in Europe, things are different:

Euro NCAP has encouraged vehicle manufacturers to consider pedestrian impacts in the vehicle design and this can be seen most commonly as space available beneath the hood of the vehicle, padding to bumper areas, and more (compliant) structures at the base of the windscreen and on the bonnet leading edge…The agency said that the testing had led to innovative countermeasures such as the deployable hood, which can lift up slightly, and external airbags, both designed to cushion the blow.

They do not mention that Tesla actually delivers a different, safer car with a deployable hood to European customers to comply with the Euro NCAP standard- that even when an American company has the ability to deliver a safer car, they don’t, because it costs more. I concluded:

The real scandal here is that North American cars do not have to meet these standards; Tesla should take the lead and supply the active hood everywhere. But I suppose it will always be cheaper to blame the pedestrian for texting or not looking both ways.

The American car makers do not sell a lot of SUVs or pickups in Europe, so don’t pay attention to Euro NCAP. But all their passenger cars that are sold globally have that low front end, that Euro jellybean look, because they are designed to comply.

aging population© UMTRI

The Freep doesn’t mention another factor that we go on about at TreeHugger: the aging population. All the data show that the older you are, the more likely you are to die when hit. When you combine big flat fronted pickup trucks with crappy road design and old people, you get more deaths. This isn't about distraction; as I wrote on MNN, Complaining about walking while texting is like complaining about walking while old. Or read Want to see some real distracted walking? Try getting old.

Every single time I have written about this issue, the response is almost as if from a bot: “Maybe if pedestrians weren’t looking at their phones or looked both ways before they crossed the street they wouldn’t get killed.”

But it doesn’t take a phone to be distracted. Older people have compromised hearing and vision. They often look down instead of up because of the road surfaces. They can’t jump out of the way. At the other end of the age spectrum, little kids can’t even be seen in front of these pickups and SUVs. Sometimes pedestrians are blamed for being short.

Dodge RamDodge Ram/Promo image

This is TreeHugger, and not the Detroit Free Press or USA Today. We are obviously not taken as seriously and I am just an old crank on a bicycle. But we were not the only people writing about this. It’s not news. It’s not likely anything is going to change, either, given how popular big aggressive pickup trucks and SUVs are these days. Because this is what domination looks like.

Investigative reporters conclude that America's love of SUVs is killing pedestrians
People are shocked, shocked to find that big moving walls of steel are dangerous.

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