Study Links Rise of SUVs to the Pedestrian Safety Crisis

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

Almost 6,000 pedestrians were killed on American streets in 2016, an increase of nearly 50 percent since 2009.

The cause of the increase, however, has stumped some safety analysts. Groups like the Governors Highway Safety Association, for example, have advanced theories on “distracted walking,” without much evidence.

But a new study from a major group, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, points to real-world causes and practicable solutions. Using federal fatality and crash data, IIHS performed a regression analysis to examine “roadway, environmental, personal and vehicle factors” on pedestrian deaths between 2009 and 2016.

One of the key findings was that not only are crashes involving pedestrians increasing, they are becoming more deadly when they do occur. The share of pedestrian crashes that were fatal increased 29 percent during the study period. One culprit, according to the study, was SUV drivers.

Here’s what researchers found:


Trucks and SUVs have been making up an increasingly large share of U.S. auto sales. Least year, they represented 63 percent of total U.S. passenger vehicles purchased.

These larger vehicles, IIHS notes, are inherently more dangerous for pedestrians. Their high-riding style, flat front ends, and higher total horsepower mean they are likely to strike pedestrians higher on victims’ bodies — at the chest rather than in the legs — and they do so with more force.

During the study period, pedestrian crashes with all types of vehicles increased, but the increase was largest among SUVs, according to the report. Fatal crashes between SUVs and pedestrians increased 81 percent during the study period.

“The average annual increase in crashes involving SUVs was 3.1 percent higher than the increase in other vehicle types combined,” wrote researchers Wen Hu and Jessica Cicchino.

Graphs: IIHS
Graphs: IIHS

Streetsblog raised the possibility that SUVs were contributing to the pedestrian safety crisis last year. But U.S. auto safety regulators have never imposed auto safety standards for the benefit of pedestrians — the types of standards that would impact how carmakers design vehicle bodies. And politicians have been wont to do anything to disrupt the highly-profitable SUV market, which is dominated by Detroit-based brands.


Other factors that had a significant impact on pedestrian deaths were widely known risk factors. Pedestrian deaths grew more quickly in urban areas, on suburban “arterials” specifically, and they were more likely to occur at night. Those patterns worsened during the study period.

Hu and Cicchino did not specifically examine the effects of driver or pedestrian distraction on pedestrian deaths, because federal data on distraction is not very reliable. However, the study results didn’t support the idea that pedestrian distraction is a key cause, they wrote.

Most of the academic research related to pedestrian distraction has been limited to observations of distracted pedestrians in crosswalks, during the day. But pedestrian fatalities increased much more during the study period at night and at mid-block crossings. We don’t know how often pedestrians are crossing streets mid-block, distracted at night, but it seems counterintuitive.

Not to mention that the concept of “distracted walking” was cooked up to excuse reckless driving.

In order to reduce pedestrian fatalities, Wu and Cicchino recommended enhancing pedestrian infrastructure — with physical improvements like road diets, pedestrian bulb-outs, signalized mid-block crossings, and more sidewalks — especially on dangerous suburban speedways. They also recommended measures to reduce speeding, like lower speed limits and camera-based enforcement. In addition, Wu and Cicchino recommended better standards for headlights to help decrease pedestrian fatalities that occur at night.

64 thoughts on Study Links Rise of SUVs to the Pedestrian Safety Crisis

  1. Idiosyncratist gives an example below for cars that also applies to bikes. Safety depends on being able to see and track every vehicle that could threaten you. On bikes it’s obviously far more important.

  2. The data show most of the increase in deaths is due to crossing mid-block and at night.
    Crossing a street mid-block (not at an intersection or crosswalk) and at night are what’s killing these pedestrians.
    It’s not logical to try to use these data to fuel your SUV-phobia and desire for totalitarian central planning. Behaviors of pedestrians are the problem, not the vehicle mix on the road.

  3. Making those 7kWhrs would take a lot more coal or natural gas, or are you thinking we need to build 300-400 nuclear power plants so as to avoid the CO2 emissions? You can’t possibly think the pathetic trickle of electricity from wind or solar could power our transport infrastructure.

  4. “You obviously know the history better…”
    You came in here quoting chapter and verse about How It’s Going to Be to us dumb hicks. And now you’re whining.

    That right there wins you a Jesus Fucking Christ Almighty.
    My first of the day! By all means, consider yourself sneered-at.

  5. It could also be that SUV’s are better than wagons. Let me ask you which you would prefer to drive your family to a kids sporting event in a station wagon or an SUV? Which would you rather drive the family in during a snowstorm? Which would you rather take your wife on a date in?

  6. Hey, i conceded your point that SUVs have a much longer history than I knew. Can you not acknowledge my point that there are a heck of lot more of them on the road over the last 30 years?

    Have a nice life.

  7. Sorry, my family is small, like most families now. We get to the sports events and through the snow in an old but very reliable four-wheel drive Subaru wagon. As for nights out, I’d like a Lambo, but I’d rather send the kids to college.

    People’s preferences vary, and it’s clear my priorities are not the predominant ones today. I can live with that. Can you?

  8. So people should die because of an error in judgement just because Americans insist on driving giant, boxy vehicles? No, the vehicle mix on the road is the primary problem. If nothing else, huge, boxy vehicles waste a lot more energy than smaller, more streamlined ones.

  9. Baloney. We’re already making and using that 7 kW-hr now to make gasoline. Switching to electrics makes it available to charge batteries instead. Also, solar and wind is hardly a trickle. Both are poised to become a majority of our generation capacity within a decade or so. Economics is why. It costs less to generate a kW-hr of energy with solar than via any other means. It’ll just take time to make enough solar panels to start replacing coal plants.

  10. I would definitely say as an onlooker perusing this website for information, that you are definitely more disrespectful. Your attitude about being right impacted your credibility. Judging by the information provided by Mr. Idiosyncratist, I’d say that he was right. Something happened in 1990 that led to a surge in purchases of SUVs. Changes in government regulations impact business models all the time. I see that you are a fairly conservative person, so I’d think you’d agree with that concept.

  11. The cause of the increase cuts both ways. Pedestrians distracted by phones video or audio, alternatively SUV drivers are getting reckless as this type of vehicle is becoming popular due to the level of comfort and affordability. On the other hand the SUVs being manufactured nowadays are much quitter than their predecessors.

  12. I live in a real ‘neighborhood’ in Queens, New York, and where most of the streets are one way streets, with some two-way streets (which are generally very narrow, with only one lane in each direction.

    My neighborhood is gentrifying and becoming more populated with both cars and pedestrians. We also have many food delivery guys using e-bikes, and we have some people also using Citibikes for leisure.

    All this has resulted in more congestion on the streets, and riders becoming impatient. I’d say 70-80% of the cars I see are in fact SUVs.

    I’ve had more near-misses recently, even while crossing in the crosswalk. And almost all of these were with SUVs.

    Particular in dense neighborhoods where streets are narrow with just 1-2 lanes of traffic, it stands to reason that the crosswalks aren’t very wide from one side to the next. So drivers don’t have as WIDE of a viewpoint when approaching the intersection. In other words. on a 4-lane one-way street, approaching cars get a WIDE view of the upcoming intersection, and can more readily see pedestrians on the sides of the crosswalk and/or in the middle of the crosswalk. Approaching a smaller, narrower crosswalk? Much less so.

    So…. we need to put an additional white STOP line a bit further BACK from the actual crosswalk, so that cars are slowing down/stopping sooner, BEFORE they get up to the crosswalk.

    The problem is also that SUV drivers are sitting up at a HIGHER LEVEL, and so as an SUV approaches a crosswalk, if a pedestrian is directly in front of them in the crosswalk, the SUV driver may not SEE the person, because they are BELOW the driver’s eye level.

    SUVs have become a scourge. Something must be done about them.

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