Pedestrian deaths up 46 percent since 2009, mostly due to bad design of roads and vehicles

on foot at risk
© The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Perhaps people might read the real data from the insurance industry and stop blaming distracted pedestrians.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has just released its latest status report On foot, at risk and it's not pretty. They find that pedestrians deaths have increased 46 percent since their low point in 2009. In 2016 there were 5,987 fatalities. And their conclusion will be no surprise to regular readers: It's all about design.

pedestrian deaths© The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

The increase has been mostly in urban or suburban areas, at nonintersections, on arterials — busy roads designed mainly to funnel vehicle traffic toward freeways — and in the dark, a new IIHS study shows. Crashes were increasingly likely to involve SUVs and high-horsepower vehicles.

Deaths per 100 crashes increased 19 percent. But the rate of death by SUV went way up.

Although pedestrian crashes most frequently involved cars, fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs increased 81 percent, more than any other type of vehicle. The power of passenger vehicles involved in fatal single-vehicle pedestrian crashes, as measured by the ratio of horsepower to weight, also increased, with larger increases at the top of the scale.

IIHS President David Harkey calls for road diets; safer roads with curb extensions and median islands, and more crosswalks. “When people are forced to walk long distances to the nearest signalized intersection, they are more likely to choose the riskier option of sprinting across multiple lanes of traffic,” Harkey says. “Communities can improve safety by providing more options to safely cross.” He also calls for lower speed limits and more speed cameras to enforce existing rules.

Reliable information on vehicle speeds is not available in fatality data, but IIHS researchers did find that the vehicles involved in fatal pedestrian crashes, like the over- all vehicle fleet, are increasingly powerful. Previous IIHS research has shown that vehicles with higher horsepower-to-weight ratios tend to be driven faster and are more likely to violate posted speed limits.

Tiny little hondaTiny little 1976 Honda Civic / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

That previous research is really fascinating; one divides the weight of the car by the horsepower. For example, a Honda Accord in 1981 with a little 75 HP engine had 3.3 HP per 100 pounds of weight; by 2015 it was 50 percent heavier but was up to 185 HP, giving it 5.7 HP per hundred pounds. And the most remarkable statistic is that regardless of speed limits and road design,

A 3-unit increase in horsepower per 100 pounds of vehicle weight was associated with a 38 percent increase in the likelihood of a vehicle exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 mph, a 7.7 percent increase in the likelihood of a vehicle exceeding the speed limit by any amount and a 2.2 percent increase in mean vehicle speed, IIHS found.

Smart crash prevention systems also can make a difference; Subarus with the optional EyeSight pedestrian protection system had claim rates for pedestrian injuries that were down 35 percent.

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

Harkey also calls out SUVs and pickups for their terrible design.

Vehicle design changes could help lessen the severity of crashes, especially when it comes to SUVs. These make up an increasingly large percentage of registered vehicles, and previous studies have found that SUVs, pickups and vans are associated with higher risks of pedestrian deaths or severe injuries to pedestrians. Such vehicles have higher and often more vertical front ends than cars and are more likely to strike a pedestrian in the head or chest. Changes in the front-end design of these vehicles could help lessen the severity of injuries when they strike pedestrians.

So, in summary:

  • We have more people out there walking and cycling;
  • Roads that are designed so that people can drive fast, without enough safe crosswalks that might inconvenience drivers;
  • Cars and trucks that are more powerful and are driven faster;
  • More SUVs and light trucks that are inherently deadlier by design than passenger cars.

    To their everlasting credit, there is not a peep about distracted walking, pedestrians texting or wearing headphones, probably because these are insurance people and they have real data. They put the blame where it belongs: on bad road design, bad vehicle design, and speeding drivers.

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