We Know SUV Design Kills Pedestrians, But We Still Let Carmakers Sell Them

The driver of this SUV struck and killed Neallie Junior Saxon III without even slowing down. Photo: WPLG
The driver of this SUV struck and killed Neallie Junior Saxon III without even slowing down. Photo: WPLG

Last weekend, 1-year-old Neallie Junior Saxon III was playing with other neighborhood kids in their front yards in Broward County, Florida, when he did what young kids do and went after a ball, into the street.

The driver of a Hyundai Santa Fe SUV hit Neallie and did not even slow down until she reached a stop sign, at which point, onlookers dragged her out and beat her, according to the Miami Herald.

“He was my pride and joy,” Neallie’s grief-stricken mother wrote on Facebook. “You will always be loved and missed. Mommy and daddy are being as strong as we can be.”

Neallie
Neallie Junior Saxon with his mother. Photo via Facebook/Miami Herald

The identity of the driver wasn’t released, but as is common in this kind of story, she is already being absolved by the police and the media. The Herald reports:

The toddler, who would have been 2 in December, was shorter than the bumper of the 2007 four-door Hyundai Santa Fe SUV. Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies said it was unlikely the woman driving would have seen the little boy, especially with all the other kids running around in the road.

There’s a lot to unpack in that passage, but one of the more striking questions it raises is this: Why are companies allowed to sell mass market vehicles with such a huge blind spot in front that children are rendered invisible? Where are the regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration?

The specific dangers of SUVs have been out in the open for a long time, and it’s no secret that pedestrians are at particular risk.

In 2015, researchers at the University of Michigan determined that pedestrians are more than three times as likely to be killed when struck by an SUV than when struck by a regular passenger vehicle. The critical design factor is the high, blocky front end, which pushes people below the wheels instead of over the hood.

Clay Gabler, a mechanical engineer who researched pedestrian safety in SUV collisions for Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, was warning about the front end design of SUVs back in 2003.

Why are big square-nosed SUVs still everywhere? Because they sell. Those front end features that kill and maim pedestrians are popular with consumers.

Keith Bradsher, a former New York Times Detroit bureau chief, wrote a scathing account of the production and marketing of sport utility vehicles in 2002, “High and Mighty.”

SUV drivers are similar to minivan drivers demographically, but they are more “self-oriented” psychologically, Bradsher reported. They are more fearful of crime, less likely to be involved in their communities, and less committed to their families, he wrote.

In 2000, DaimlerChrysler Director of Market Research David Bostwick told Bradsher that for consumers, ”It’s not safety as the issue, it’s aggressiveness, it’s the ability to go off the road.” Research also showed that SUV owners drive faster and place a lower value on being courteous on the road.

SUVs are designed specifically to appeal to this psychological profile, executives admitted:

DaimlerChrysler has chosen high-riding designs even for the two-wheel-drive versions of its sport utilities, even though they are unlikely to be driven over rough terrain and are therefore unlikely to need to ride higher, said David C. McKinnon, DaimlerChrysler’s director of vehicle exterior design. Mr. McKinnon said the company’s highest executives had told him repeatedly to ‘get them up in the air and make them husky.’

Up in the air, where drivers can’t see little kids like Neallie Saxon. For no reason other than style.

When the New Scientist published Gabler’s research 14 years ago, it carried a warning:

But in the US, pedestrians are losing the safety battle. “Despite over 4000 pedestrian deaths a year, there are no pedestrian impact safety regulations under serious consideration in the US,” Gabler says.

Since then pedestrian deaths have increased nearly 50 percent. Lives like Neallie’s are the price we pay to satisfy consumer preferences and maximize automakers’ profits.

  • Agree, but the ends lack symmetry.

  • Eric Van Bezooijen

    Of course, “if you get into a car crash, your car is going to win” only works if your massive SUV is crushing some smaller sedan. If two hulking SUVs collide, the results will be worse than if they were both ordinary sedans since safety requirements are looser for SUVs. Since large SUVs have much worse handling, avoiding the accident in the first place is more difficult.

    I remember reading years ago on a thread about SUVs about how some guy wrote that his wife was in an SUV, and there was a compact car behind her (or she was in the rear SUV, I forget this detail) and another giant SUV rear ended the compact car and crushed it between the two SUVs. He said there was a little girl in the back seat who died and how happy he was his wife was unhurt in her giant SUV.

    Someone else pointed out that thanks to their choices in vehicles, a little girl died who didn’t have to. This thought never registers.

  • John Grochowski

    Maybe check out the Crosstrek when it’s time to get something else. Its basically a slightly lifted Impreza hatchback. Size-wise I feel like it compares pretty closely with the older Foresters.

  • John Grochowski

    I’ve had the same maddening conversation with WisDOT engineers almost verbatim in the past.

    My theory about pedestrian safety as it relates to SUVs is pretty simple: electronic countermeasures will eventually spread across the entire new vehicle fleet and pedestrian vs car accidents will drop as the technology is adopted as people replace older cars. Every manufacturer offers some version of pedestrian detection technology currently, although as with every new safety feature, the manufacturers only include it on higher trim levels. Eventually, as with curtain airbags and stability control, it should make its way into even the least expensive new cars.

  • Thanks!

  • “The critical design factor is the high, blocky front end,”–which also allows for *much more visiibility* in order that accidents may be avoided in the first place. Cars that are *too low* are much more dangerous in this respect.

  • davistrain

    If you think being allowed to legally drive a rented box truck with what we call a Class C license here in California is bad, consider that with the same license a person can drive a motorhome up to about 40 feet long–that’s as big as a standard transit bus.

    Regarding moving, Mr. R., consider yourself lucky–many people are more or less forced by circumstances to “pull up stakes” fairly often. Some years ago, there was an article about a family in Davis CA who moved to another part of town and were able to schlep everything in their household with a combination of cargo bikes and bicycle trailers. The fact that Davis has the topography of a billiard table helped matters considerably. One wonders just how far, and how hilly the terrain would have to be before the folks involved would say, “The heck with this bike plan, that sounds like too much work. Let’s swallow our pride, rent a U-Haul and let some fossil fuel ease our burden.”

  • Joe R.

    In my case, it’s choice more than luck. I decided a long time ago that no employer is worth relocating for. Moving is such a hassle that having to do it every time you change jobs makes it a nonstarter for me. I preferred just being underemployed to moving constantly. There’s also the fact I really wouldn’t have been able to relocate to any place where I would have had to drive to work. No driver’s license, no car, plus I get car sick on all but the shortest trips. I couldn’t drive to work and be in any kind of state to do a full day’s work once I got there. So in the end the decision was kind of made for me. I had to stay in a place where you could find work but didn’t need a car or license. NYC is probably on a very short list of places where that’s possible. Most likely the next move for me will be when they carry me out feet first. At this point there’s probably enough in the house to fill a 53 foot semi-trailer. Moving would be a nightmare of epic proportions, not to mention there are few places besides NYC where I would be able to have my independence.

    As for moving, why can’t people just hire professional movers? It’s more money, but you avoid the hassle of driving the truck and moving all your stuff.

  • RGD

    Pickup Truck customers are a different kettle of fish again. They are so different because an awful lot of them have bought the truck because they use it for something. That might be a lower share than in the past, but trust me, it is not at all a small percentage.

    All of this said, the Citroen 2CV could do most things a pickup truck owner would want (other than towing), plus a few things trucks could only dream of doing. It was quite a bit lower to the ground than SUVs, yet it could ride over quite bumpy terrain with an egg basket in the back– without breaking any of them. If you had something big, the roof slid all the way back, and the trunk opened on the outside and extened up into the interior such that it was part of the passenger compartment. Probably the most practical honest car since the Model T…

  • RGD

    It did in Europe. Full size trucks and super large SUVs aren’t really a thing in Europe, and the test results in a low safety score, but oten does not result in a ban on the vehicle. It also skips visibility in favor of crashworthiness.

  • RGD

    They were. They are regulated much more strictly now– on the same level as cars, due to Obama’s new regulations.

  • RGD

    Depends a lot on the type of infrastructure. From experience, headwinds are much worse than hills. Groningen gets some really nasty North Sea Winter Storms (and winds). They often have to build their buildings almost entirely out of concrete due to the wind. Yet people do move with the rental cargo bikes available at the city’s IKEA. There is a Streetfilm about Groningen which I suggest seeing.

  • RGD

    Agreed. I hate being behind them, and I don’t like driving them. We have one for historical reasons, but when it dies (we’ll see when), I think I’ll balk at replacing it with an SUV.

  • Miles Bader

    Yup, in rural areas, well, pickups probably make sense much more often, but in cities, they should be illegal without special expensive licensing (for use by construction crews etc).

    Scooters are actually pretty dangerous, but mostly to the rider, and they’d be less dangerous if there were fewer cars around.

    So: (1) Max engine displacement of 500cc for a normal license. (2) Get rid of street-side parking (the space can be used for protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks). (3) Raise fuel taxes dramatically.

  • Miles Bader

    the SUVs only go off-road if a person happens to park with a wheel on the sidewalk

    “Well, can your tiny little eurocar smash through a restaurant wall without blinking?!” ><

  • Miles Bader

    It’s certainly not ridiculous.

    They are (1) very dangerous, and (2) serve no useful purpose for 99% of users.

    That is exactly the class of items which should be banned…

    There are ways of accommodating legitimate uses, like special-purpose licensing and high licensing fees.

  • Miles Bader

    One wonders just how far, and how hilly the terrain would have to be
    before the folks involved would say, “The heck with this bike plan,…

    Sure, but it’s entirely natural for decisions to be made based on practical measures. For a small family with little furniture moving a short distance, bikes make a lot of sense. For a family with huge amounts of heavy furniture, not so much. I had a friend that used to move house using taxis (this was in the U.K. though, where taxicabs are … capacious).

    The problem with the U.S. is simply that people choose motorized transport—and often insanely oversized motorized transport—always, regardless of whether other solutions are practical.

    I live in a suburb area of Tokyo where bicycle usage is very heavy, and I often see the giant (roughly the size of van) bicycle-pulled trailers being operated by the big package-delivery companies, sometimes several of them together in a sort of bicycle-cargo-train. They also use big trucks, small trucks, motorcycles, bicycles with big baskets, wheeled baskets being pushed by a guy along the sidewalk, and people just walking along carrying packages (the latter two of course when the destination is fairly close to one of the distribution centers).

    I gotta say that the heavy use of giant bike trailers by a big traditional company sort of surprised me (isn’t labor more expensive than gasoline?) but given the huge number of vehicle types they use, they’ve presumably throught about this stuff a lot, and know which vehicles are optimal for which cases….

  • Miles Bader

    Moving by bike is interesting but it probably is only viable if your move is maybe 10 miles or less

    Sure, but that’s probably a hugely common case; a lot of moving is between different dwellings in the same city…

    In any case, it would be kinda nice if it were an option. It’s been ages since I last went to U-haul, but I don’t recall them renting out big bike trailers and beefy low-geared bikes to pull them… :]

    For me in particular, this would be an interesting thing: I’ve never had a driver’s license, so moving has always meant “hire someone or bug friend to drive,” but if I could do it by giant bike trailer, I could do it myself! Such freedom! ^^;

  • davistrain

    A few years ago Consumer Reports did a review on the Honda Odyssey minivan. One comment sticks in my mind, it went something like this: “Sorry, image conscious parents, a minivan like the Odyssey makes a lot more sense for most family transportation situations than a truck-based SUV.” Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, minivans acquired an aura to dull suburbanity, while they should be considered a grownup vehicle for grownup responsibilities.

  • Stephen Simac

    SUV’s are much more likely to back up over a short pedestrian, often their own child in their own driveway. The supposed better “visibility” of these high, blocky vehicles comes at the expense of every other driver in a “too low” car. I’m not sure if SUV’s have worse visibility or just choose not to use it, but smaller cars have at least the same visibility of pedestrians as SUV’s and are far less likely to kill them if they don’t see them.

  • Stephen Simac

    According to High and Mighty- 2002 book, no court case against motor vehicle manufacturers for liability of their product when driven as possible has ever been won (not sure how many were brought). Only for manufacturing defects. Pedestrians and cyclists and motorists in smaller cars have no legal standing for design dangers, so far.

  • Stephen Simac

    How about making motor vehicles out of Nerf ball material. Of course the dogs would chew them ragged.

  • Stephen Simac

    Broward County, FL has one of the highest rates of hit and run fatalities for pedestrians in the country. Sometimes pedestrians are at fault, but being from there, and still visiting it infuriates me how callously drivers treat crosswalks.

  • Stephen Simac

    Taller vehicles, SUV’s in particular, are more likely to have single car rollover crashes (is it a crash or collision if no objects are hit?). High and Mighty gives statistics over a few decades. They are not safer, just illusion of safety, like bike lanes.

  • Stephen Simac

    Two thirds of gun deaths are suicides. Not a plus for gun ownership for self defense, but like ninja cyclists more likely to injure themselves than others, unlike SUV drivers.

  • The article is about a vehicle moving *forward*. And show me where lower cars don’t have comparable incidents backing up.

  • davistrain

    I haven’t seen a Citroen 2CV in the US for many years. Last time I saw one in service was around 1968. We had a co-worker who I would see at lunch time tinkering with the little car, and at the end of the day, I’d see him putting on his beret and putt-putting off. I don’t even know if they’re even street-legal in the US anymore and it would be a brave soul who drove one on a Southern Calif. freeway.

  • MPCpiano

    WTF???

  • Jessica Faugno

    Totally agree. I read this article because I was wondering if there were any studies about SUVs being more dangerous since a 4 year old was just killed by one in Brooklyn and my son’s friend was killed by one on his motorcycle because the driver didn’t see him. It’s ridiculous how everyone has one.

  • Newer SUVs all have back-up cameras

  • Jacob

    People are not getting appreciably taller. Your theory that tall vehicles help you avoid accidents is a farce. These SUV’s can’t turn compared to cars and can have a 40+ foot longer stopping distance from 62mph. They often screen pedestrians from other drivers until it’s too late. The fatality rate for pedestrians has gone Up 81% in the last 10 years almost all due to being driven over. Lower cars stop faster and people tend to go up on the relatively soft hood(compared to being smashed into the pavement ) They also have better visibility to and for the average height person.

  • “People are not getting appreciably taller.”

    Now THIS is truly stupid.

    The driver having more vision is always better. Period.

  • Andrew

    Try reading beyond his first sentence.

  • Jacob

    You can’t see people on the other side if many SUV’S even if you are in an SUV. There isn’t a large enough difference in seating height to make a real difference. You additionally have less vision for things that are closer. SUV’s are a double edge sword while they offer marginal vision improvments they block more vision than you gain. As more people buy SUV’s that marginal advantage evaporates.

  • Sal Chiarelli

    I drive an SUV. I frequently travel to upstate NY and the trunk space is a major plus for me. Apart from that one feature though, I don’t really like it. It provides a higher viewpoint, but I hardly see what’s directly in front. It provides a sense of security that almost encourages more reckless driving. It sucks as an offroad vehicle for the one time I really needed it to be unless you count a handful of snow days which I saved myself some shoveling. It’s not a suitable vehicle for city living and I drive it extra carefully knowing how it presents a greater danger to pedestrians.

  • Joe R.

    It’s a pity more SUV drivers don’t have your good attitude regarding the additional danger SUVs present. It does indeed seem that the higher viewpoint encourages lots of people to drive SUVs more recklessly.

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