With 7,500 pedestrian fatalities in America every year, we must consider the safety of people outside our cars.

Pedestrian Deaths Feature Pedestrian Deaths Feature

In 2022, cars killed 7,508 pedestrians, the equivalent of 18 fully-loaded Boeing 747s crashing with zero survivors. That means a pedestrian died roughly every 70 minutes, with no breaks in the tide of fatalities for weekends or holidays. This flood of death is recent: American roads were demonstrably safer to walk on just a decade ago, with thousands fewer pedestrian deaths. 

Experts are unanimous in their assessment of the situation: this is a disaster. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called the surge of deaths “a national crisis on our roadways”. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has undertaken a number of studies to determine why fatalities are rising, and has added stricter testing guidelines for pedestrian-monitoring systems. But as automakers have developed new technology to address increasing fatalities, the question remains: why are we caught in a death spiral? 

Covid And The Falling American Lifespan

Pedestrian deaths trended slightly downward in the first half of 2023 (data for the whole year is not yet available), but even a partial count indicates thousands more fatalities than our country’s all-time low in 2010, when 4,302 were killed. Fatalities aren’t up just in unadjusted, raw deaths, either; the massive jump in pedestrian fatalities during and after Covid has driven a rise in deaths per vehicle-mile traveled and deaths per capita, as well.

What’s driving the increase? There’s no single factor. High-risk behavior has driven some of the climb. The pandemic fueled a surge in deaths of despair—fatalities caused by alcohol-induced liver disease, drug overdose, or suicide—that also manifested in higher rates of impaired driving and thousands more deaths. This has fueled part of the increase, with drunk drivers (BAC > .08) causing 19% of pedestrian deaths in 2022, vs. just 16% in 2016.

Speed is also a large component in how likely an impact is to be fatal. Just 12% of pedestrians struck at 25 MPH die, but 45% of those struck at 40 MPH die. This trend is essentially logarithmic: at 58 MPH, 90% of pedestrian impacts are fatal. Unfortunately, speeds are also trending upward in post-COVID America, with some studies showing drivers are over 50% more likely to speed (by at least 10 MPH over the limit) compared with before the pandemic began. This has fueled a modest rise in fatalities, as well. 

Distracted driving is more challenging to get hard data on—there’s no breathalyzer test for distraction, after all—but telemetry suggests that cell phone usage while driving has increased by 20% over the past three years. Drivers are distracted most frequently at higher—and more fatal—speeds, and drivers who check their phones the most are more than twice as likely to crash compared to those who check their phones the least. 

This might help explain the surge in deaths since Covid began, but pedestrian fatalities began rising in 2010, long before these individual trends manifested. The pandemic therefore has only accelerated already-existing problems. I spoke to David Harkey, the president of the IIHS, to understand what is killing pedestrians, and how he’s working to stem the tide of death in our crosswalks.

A Few Straightforward Tests

Not all impacts are created equal. That realization has driven a lot of the IIHS’s testing. First off, although more traffic is on the roads during the day, “three-quarters of pedestrian fatalities occur [at night]”, Harkey explained. This motivated the Institute to begin testing headlight efficacy in 2016. Initially, just one of the 31 vehicles tested earned the highest “Good” rating; As of 2021, more than 30% of vehicles earned a “Good” rating. This has tangible results for drivers and pedestrians, as well. An IIHS study has shown that nighttime single-vehicle crash rates per mile driven are 20% lower in cars with “Good” headlights vs. those with the worst “Poor” headlights.

In 2019, the IIHS also began testing the efficacy of pedestrian-monitoring systems. The goal, said Harkey, is to “prevent the crash or … slow the vehicle down substantially to mitigate harm,” because incidents become increasingly more survivable with every MPH reduced. 

Since testing began a decade ago, manufacturers have responded to the tests, and Harkey noted the IIHS has seen “…about 90% of the vehicles we test during the daylight hours are getting one of our top two ratings” for pedestrian avoidance. Only two-thirds of new cars are getting “Good” or “Acceptable” grades at night, however, and a recent IIHS study showed that pedestrian avoidance systems make zero difference in fatalities on unlit roads at night.

This motivated the IIHS to add nighttime pedestrian detection to its standard testing for the 2025 model year. To earn higher grades—and coveted Top Safety Pick awards—automated systems now have to perform well both day and night. 

Harkey noted the agency’s tests should play their part in a broader American infrastructure strategy, one that includes more-effective road lighting, better pedestrian infrastructure, and lower speed limits.

Indeed, Vision Zero, a non-profit that works with cities to design less-lethal streets, has seen modestly decreased fatalities in a handful of cities, such as New York City, where its suggestions have been implemented. In Oslo, Norway, the program even achieved total success, with zero pedestrian or cyclist fatalities in all of 2019. 

Unfortunately, this success is far from universal stateside, with many midsize and large Vision Zero-commited American cities seeing rises in deaths since the pandemic, despite sweeping changes to speed limits and road design. 

Which brings us to the final, and most glaring, cause of rising pedestrian fatalities. 

Our Cars Are Too Big

The IIHS’s efforts have focused on preventing crashes, but what happens when an impact inevitably happens? There is a massive and ever-growing pile of evidence that big trucks kill more pedestrians than small cars. Studies have shown that getting hit by a “light truck”—the catch-all for most crossovers, minivans, pickups, and SUVs sold in America—is equivalent to a 6 MPH increase in impact speed from a sedan, which can be the difference between life and death. 

Light trucks and SUVs, with their larger blind spots and taller front ends, are also responsible for the bulk of those increased fatalities. Modern pickup trucks also have bigger blind spots than cars, which means that they’re four times as likely to hit pedestrians when making a left turn. Trucks are horrifying for children: kids are eight times more likely to die when hit by an SUV instead of a normal car. Worse, many modern trucks have hoods taller than the average child, which has caused a surge in the number of children killed in low-speed accidents in parking lots and driveways. 

Late last year, the IIHS commissioned a study on vehicle design and how it influences pedestrian safety. The results re-confirmed these previous findings and gave precise measurements on the shape of the cars killing us: Vehicles with a hood taller than 40 inches are 45% more likely to kill a pedestrian than vehicles with hoods under 30 inches. Boxy, squared-off crossovers (with a hood between 30 and 40 inches tall) kill 25% more people than rounded vehicles of the same height. Vehicles with hoods below 30 inches (which include vehicles like 1990s Toyota pickups, not just subcompact cars) and bubby-looking crossovers are all just as safe to pedestrians.

A 3.9-inch higher hoodline correlates to a 22% higher risk of death for pedestrians. As motorcyclist YouTuber FortNine points out, an emphasis on aggressive, high-hood design in the modern truck market translates to roughly 509 extra deaths per year, a number that is sure to rise as sedans continue to disappear from American roads in favor of larger “light trucks”. This seems like an easy area for improvement: penalize manufacturers for blunt styling, poor visibility, and tall front ends. 

You Can Test For That!

With this data, we could demand pedestrian-safe design tomorrow, and indeed, some countries already have. The European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) has tested pedestrian impact safety since 1997. It scores cars based on how lethal they are to pedestrians, alongside other traditional occupant-protection tests. Harkey pointed out that for globally marketed vehicles, “a lot of that [European pedestrian-safe] design has worked its way into the US market vehicles as well.” 

Auto enthusiasts have already seen this at work: Euro NCAP pedestrian safety standards brought pop-up headlights to extinction in the early 2000s, after European regulators discovered pop-ups threatened pedestrian safety. But without an American program for pedestrian impact testing, the biggest, heaviest, deadliest trucks—those meant especially for the U.S. market—go untested by any agency. 

The IIHS isn’t testing for pedestrian impacts yet, Harkey explained, as its own studies correlating specific design trends to increased fatalities are too recent. The agency won’t make concrete design recommendations or add new testing categories for at least several years, if at all. He did note that the IIHS is already working with automakers on ways to change vehicle design for pedestrian safety based on this recent research. Even if the IIHS changed standards tomorrow, however, there’s nothing the agency can compel an automaker to do.

Where Is NHTSA?

The agencies that can compel automaker behavior, meanwhile, encourage automakers to build larger vehicles. The EPA, through its footprint-weighted fuel-economy rules, has implicitly encouraged automakers to build larger cars by enforcing less-stringent mileage targets against vehicles specifically built for “off-road use”, like tall pickups and SUVs. Even its own findings suggest its own regulations encouraged automakers to build larger, less-efficient vehicles. 

And as larger cars become more popular, it makes small cars less and less safe. Every 220 pounds added to a car’s weight equates to a 14% higher risk it kills someone in another vehicle. IIHS research has shown that cars are roughly twice as deadly for occupants as trucks and SUVs are. As such, the IIHS encourages young, fresh drivers to avoid small cars entirely, for their own safety. It’s a catch-22, as young drivers crash more often than any other age group, threatening the lives of the people they hit.

NHTSA is aware of this problem: its own research shows that SUVs are killing vastly more pedestrians in recent years, even when adjusted for the surge of light trucks on American roads. Despite this, NHTSA has no pedestrian impact tests, and it offers zero penalty for excessively tall vehicles. 

When Motor 1 reached out to NHTSA for comment, a spokesperson said the agency’s steps include “…an exhaustive literature review…to better understand the potential effects of vehicle size in various crash scenarios and injury types,” as well as a potential new federal requirement for pedestrian-avoidance systems in all new cars. As part of a revamp of NHTSA’s entire safety rating system, the spokesperson said, pedestrian impact testing is being considered. 

That proposed rule for pedestrian impact testing is still in its early stages, and has no set deadline. Every 70 minutes, another pedestrian is killed by a car; Every few weeks, another airliner goes down. 

How To Fix The Problem

7,500 pedestrian deaths a year are not just caused by the cars impacting the pedestrians that kill them. If, in the span of one year, 18 fully-loaded Boeing 747s crashed with no survivors, we’d reappraise airspace. We’d question how we build airplanes and how we train pilots. We would recognize this as a failure of the system, not as individual mistakes of 18 pilots. Our roads should be no different. 

The good news is that we have sensible solutions in plain sight: lower speed limits, redesign intersections, build roads that prioritize pedestrians and cars equally, and most importantly, reward automakers for building smaller vehicles with better visibility. 

The bad news is these require some sacrifice from drivers. Safer roads have lower speed limits—likely enforced by ticketing in one form or another. These roads also require more concentration to drive on. SUVs and pickups would need to revert back to 90s sizing, and all of our cars would need to shrink. These are all a hard sell in America, admittedly, but until they happen, we keep losing lives needlessly. 

I genuinely love cars, and I’ve owned some big trucks. I understand the appeal of high speeds and lifted rigs, and I’m loath to give them up. But even I can’t accept a future wherein 7,500 are killed each year, especially when the solutions are so tangible and the rewards so massive. I’d accept small sacrifices if thousands more could live decades longer. I hope the rest of America agrees.

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