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.

  • Jonathan Krall

    This study reminds me of a 2008 study of bicycle helmets by Bill Curnow in the book Transportation Accident Analysis and Prevention. He basically showed that helmets should not be expected to reduce brain injuries because their design is driven by marketing rather than by science. This was later followed by studies showing the helmets indeed do nothing to reduce concussions, helmet use rates are not a predictor of injury rates among cities (whereas bike lane miles are correlated with low injury rates), etc.

    It seems that SUV design is driven by marketing considerations rather than safety considerations. Nice to have a clear result. And to know to avoid both SUVs and arterial roads at night.

  • Stuart

    And politicians have been wont to do anything to disrupt the highly-profitable SUV market

    I’m pretty sure you meant “loath” (or a synonym thereof) rather than “wont”.

  • TakeFive

    or maybe wonton soup?

  • TakeFive

    From what I can gather the referenced ‘research’ appears to be an updated position paper on previous research… which is fine. I’d agree that any obsession over ‘distracted’ would be better moved to ‘impaired.’

    Pedestrian improvements sound like a winner to me. Call you councilperson?

  • voltairesmistress

    Ms. Schmitt, I think you may mean that legislators have been “not wont” to do anything about the SUV design safety crisis. “Wont” means inclined to; “not wont” means disinclined to. In any case, thank you for the informative article.

  • 94110

    “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.”

    Is this true? I’ve heard that the ’97 Miata redesign that eliminated the pop-up headlights was driven by pedestrian safety standards. That said, I guess my source didn’t say it was US standards.

  • Velodrone

    Bicycle helmets’ sole intent in its design and testing are for falling injuries, not collisions. It was never a secret, they were quite open about the standards of the tests. SUVs are similar in that they were marketed for their safety despite the lack of any studies that proved it during that peak era of SUV sales

  • Stephen Simac

    The book High and Mighty published around 1999? gives a clear history of how motor vehicle and traffic safety agencies did nothing to protect other road users (including smaller vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists) when the designs of these “light trucks” ( a loophole for gas mileage reductions) were starting to increase fatalities in the decades after they became popular.They are extremely dangerous for shorter pedestrians and children when backing up in parking lots and driveways. They’re not even safer for SUV drivers, since they are more likely to roll over in single car crashes because they are top heavy, sitting up higher than cars. Some manufacturers have dealt with that by making them even heavier, with more weight in their chassis, thus more deadly to those they run into.

  • Wilfried84

    Every time someone tout how “save” SUVs are, I want to spit. Sure, for the occupants maybe, but at the cost of making the streets less safe for everyone else. This is patently obvious to me every single day as a person on the streets not safely ensconced in one of there behemoths.

  • Cynara2

    No, it is not true. Bumpers and hoods are designed to lessen walker fatalities.

  • Joe R.

    These vehicles should really be banned from the general public and the mileage loophole closed. The automakers complain people won’t buy cars but if all they offered were cars there really wouldn’t be much choice. SUVs and pickups started a highway arms race which has claimed thousands of lives. Ironically, they’re not even safer for the occupants, despite the common perception otherwise. They’ve also wasted billions of barrels of oil with their boxy, inefficient shapes.

    The funny thing is back when gas was $4 to $5 a gallon you couldn’t give them away. Funny how fast people forget. If gas rises again, I don’t want to hear it from the people stupid enough to have bought these gas guzzlers.

  • madbandit

    The thing is most of the “SUVs” being sold today are actually crossovers, which are more an SUV/wagon/hatch body on a raised car platform. While these certainly play into the dangers of pedestrian deaths, they do not carry the same mileage penalty that traditional true SUVs do. Gas going back to $4/$5 a gallon may encourage some increased sedan ownership but by-and-large crossovers are here to stay.

  • mckillio

    And there are two types of safety, surviving a crash and avoiding a crash. SUVs may be better at the former but are worse with the latter.

  • mckillio

    And hood ornaments are banned as well .

  • Joe R.

    Crossovers still lose on two fronts. They frontal area is greater, and the drag coefficient is worse. They may better than SUVs, but they’re a far cry from what is possible efficiency-wise. A well-designed, aerodynamic sedan could get in excess of 75 mpg, even 100 mpg. People in this country are conditioned to consider 25 or 30 mpg “good”, when frankly it sucks. So crossovers may be “good enough” efficiency-wise in many people’s minds, but it’s only because we have pretty low standards.

    You could make them better if you at least had a sloped front end similar to a minivan. A secondary problem with inefficient body shapes is that it makes electrifying the fleet all that much harder. A battery which might give an aerodynamic sedan a 400 mile range will barely manage 150 miles in a crossover.

    I’d really like to see requirements for drag coefficient and/or frontal area. You could have different classes of frontal area depending upon the type of vehicle. Regardless of frontal area, you can require a maximum drag coefficient of maybe 0.2. And you can also have maximum rolling coefficients for the tires in the 0.005 area. The knobby tires and boxy shapes would be gone with those standards.

  • Joe R.

    When you look at the big picture, SUVs aren’t even better at the former. Yes, they may protect their occupants somewhat better, but this comes at the expense of those in smaller vehicles. Overall, SUVs undoubtedly cause the overall fatality rate to rise.

  • Daniel

    just like how the tobacco industry funded all this nice juicy research into stress and genetic causes of cancer

  • A well-designed, aerodynamic sedan could get in excess of 75 mpg, even 100 mpg.

    Let Toyota and Hyundai know? The best MPG available at present in a relatively normal car is the Hyundai IONIQ at 58 MPG, followed closely by one of the versions of the Prius at 56 MPG. Nothing without a plug gets more than that.

  • Which is why we need to ban smaller vehicles. Or at least that’s what Scott Pruitt says.

  • Joe R.

    Because we’ve traded off style and power for mpg. Put in only as large an engine as needed to just barely reach maybe 100 mph, streamline the heck out of it, and you can easily get over 100 mpg. Just do a Google search for lots of picture of what such a vehicle might look like.

    That said, regardless of how efficient the body shape is, we need to electrify the fleet yesterday. We should be talking in terms in miles per kW-hr, not mpg.

  • AMH

    We really need to regulate vehicle size. Every time I return to North America from the rest of the world, I’m struck by the sheer size of the average vehicle here. Trucks and cars are just smaller in most of the world, and it really makes the streets a lot more humane, even in cities with worse traffic. Size matters.

  • Correction to SUV (light truck) percentage.
    Angie wrote, “Trucks and SUVs have been making up an increasingly large share of U.S. auto sales. Least [sic] year, they represented 63 percent of total U.S. passenger vehicles purchased.”
    That was 2016, not 2017. Last year, the figure jumped to 67 percent, according to Todd Lassa of Automobile (magazine).

    [snipped from Planetizen: “Climate Challenge: Not Enough EVs or Too Many SUVs?”]

  • LOL!

  • As of May 1, a new requirement was added to all car sales, back-up cameras. I think this resulted from motorists backing-up and hitting children, presumably in their own driveway.
    “Backup Cameras Are Now on All New U.S.-Spec Vehicles
    As of May 1, it’s a legal requirement.”

    “If you’re shopping for a new vehicle and it doesn’t have a backup camera or the feature costs extra, then it was built before Tuesday, May 1st, 2018. That’s when the safety device became standard on all vehicles made for the American market. The standardization is part of a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulation issued in 2014…”

  • But srsly.

    “The agency is preparing to make the case that tough fuel economy rules could effectively force automakers to sell smaller, lighter and thus less crash-worthy vehicles, leading to more crash-related deaths. And it warns the rules could drive up the cost of cars to the point that consumers will put off buying new models equipped with life-saving technology improvements.” –

  • MiklosMeszaros

    You’re trading off a number of critical safety aspects when you strictly design from an efficiency standpoint. With the RR targets specified, it would notable reduce the braking distances a vehicle could achieve with a large number of vehicles on road that easily outperform and create a situations for incidence.

    The other is minimal power. A good deal number highway merges are rather short and short sighted. Throw in the traffic rates some urban areas get and you want something that produces the adequate torque to accomplish the merge safely. Electric assist hybrid and electric cars could provide a solution to mitigate the issue.

    Aerodynamics play their most significant roll at highway speeds and manufactures spend only moderate efforts to improve these figures as consumers in the US aren’t prioritizing their purchases on fuel economy. They understand this and development funds won’t be spent unless that changes. You can attempt to regulate the hell out of it, but the general public must stand behind it as policy can change with administrations, as we are seeing now. You need to have the general buying public behind this to convince manufactures to spend development costs on propulsion and aerodynamic efficiency.

    Obviously the final factor is weight, which also plays in its safety and city economy. From a safety aspect, a heavier car has greater energy dissipation in its design to pass its various collision tests into solid barriers. Smaller cars are given less as the requirement to pass the test is based on energy dissipation of the vehicle in test and the total momentum is dictated by the mass. When a heavier car and lighter car collide, the heaver vehicle is able to dissipate the energy to a greater degree before it reaches the occupants by design. The smaller car performs to its design, but the energy coming from the larger vehicle exceeds it designed limit, which is based on its lighter mass. If we adjust the testing to specified momentum, then we could see some parity in real world safety, but to an expense and likely increase in mass and loss of efficiency to the smaller car.

    In a side note. We would be required to also increase the gas taxes significantly, or change the method of revenue generation, to fund sorely needed infrastructure repair. But when doing as poorly as our government has over past several decades, it leads to backlashes by large swaths of truck owners, which based on sales figures, is a great deal of votes.

    Electrification is a good solution, but I don’t see the big domestic makes leading the way as some foreign competitors. With additional advancements, some which already appear to be coming down the pipeline, electric may very rapidly make its impact on our roads.

  • smorrebrod

    I compared the VW Golf and Tiguan (which is the crossover version of the former) using UK models (because US engine choices are limited). Configuring both to be FWD, with 125 Metric HP (123impHP) 1.4L Turbo engines mated to a 6 speed manual, the larger Tiguan gets 47.1mpgUK (39.2US) compared to 53.3mpgUK (44.4US). 0-62mph times are 10.5 and 9.1 sec respectively.

    Similarly, the Ford Focus and Kuga (Escape in the US) with a 150 M-HP (148impHP) 1.5L Turbo with 6spd manual gearbox, the Focus gets 51.4mpgUK (42.8US) vs the Kuga’s 44.8mpgUK(37.3US). 8.9 vs 9.7.

    It’s not too big of a mileage penalty considering the extra room, however consumers usually end up getting more powerful engines and the “all-necessary AWD” (which is negated by not switching to winter tyres and never being taken off-road), so the difference is usually much starker.

  • User_1

    This current rage on SUVs is cause of the price of gas. Last time we had this rage, we had to bail out American car companies when the price of gas went way up. I see the same thing possibly happening again.

    Towards the end of the article, there’s a mention to lowering speeds. This can be accomplished without even much change to posted speeds. All by taking a more aggressive approach to governing speed. The law enforcers out there (police) can start ticketing drivers going 5 mph over the posted speed. The current situation out there is that it’s pretty safe to be driving 10 mph or 15 mph faster without the danger of getting a ticket.

    I lived on a urban street with 30 mph posted speed. I saw almost EVERY car, including buses going over that speed!

  • oogernomicon

    SUVs inherently lessen the best collision preventive available to cars: driver reaction speed.

  • Ben Schumacher

    It’s also possible to induce lower speeds with road design. Streetsblog has written on this topic numerous times. Narrowing street lanes (road diets) effectively reduces speeds because drivers don’t feel as safe driving at faster speeds. Cities are also calming traffic using other methods, like turning one-way streets into two-way streets. I’m all for more tickets for speeding, but I don’t think we have enough police to keep speeds down; it’s best to get the drivers to not WANT to speed.

  • While New York City certainly has enough police to keep speeds down, there is much to be said about engineering streets for appropriate speeds.

    I just recently completed my third round-trip ride to Philadelphia. During this ride I took New Jersey Route 27 for its entire 40-mile length between Newark and Princeton. There were a few sections of Route 27 where I was shocked to see a posted speed limit of 45 or even 50. Yet, despite this, the cars were doing no more than 25 miles per hour. In the sections with those extreme speed limits, the road had only one traffic lane in each direction, with wide shoulders (which effectively doubled as bike lanes).

    I contrast this with horrible Old Country Road out on Long Island, which has two or three lanes in each direction, and no shoulder whatsoever. Its speed limit is 40; but drivers go a lot faster. This is because drivers, when they see several lanes and no shoulder, get into the mindset of driving on a highway. By contrast, when they see one lane with a wide shoulder (sometimes used by bicyclists), they get visual signals that they are to behave in a civilised fashion.

  • Stephen Simac

    According to High and Mighty= a history of the SUV’s rise to dominate the streets and parking lots of the U.S. they are (or were) more dangerous for the occupants as well, because of their topheavy tendency to roll over, one of the most deadly types of collisions. Some of their top heavy design has been reduced, so perhaps they are “safer” now, but not for anyone they crash into.

  • EvanRavitz

    SUVs are far more dangerous to cyclists as well because we cannot see over them unlike a car


Federal Report: Bad Street Design a Factor in Rising Ped/Bike Fatalities

A new report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office [PDF] examines why people walking or biking account for a rising share of traffic deaths in the United States. While the conclusions aren’t exactly earth-shattering, one culprit the GAO identified is street design practices that seek primarily to move cars. The investigation was ordered by U.S. representatives Rick Larsen (Washington State), […]