Traffic fatalities in general are up, according to 2016 figures, and have been steadily rising for a few years. Researchers debate the causes: more cars on the road, more distraction from cell phones, more alcohol and drugs, and more aggressive behaviors have all been mentioned. One trend, however, that is puzzling people is why SUVs in particular seem to be causing more pedestrian fatalities. During the eight-year time span from 2009 to 2016, single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs with pedestrian fatalities spiked by 81 percent. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which ran the 2018 study, also discovered that passenger vehicles with bigger engines and more horsepower, such as large SUVs and pickup trucks, had a greater likelihood of being involved in pedestrian deaths.
Prior to 2009, total pedestrian fatalities had been falling. What could have changed?
Nationally, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the nearly 6,000 pedestrian deaths in 2016 represented a number higher than any previous year since 1990. From 2009 to 2016, pedestrian fatalities saw roughly a 50 percent increase.
In South Carolina, the story is even worse. Pedestrian deaths soared 66.7 percent from 2009 to 2016, (from 90 to 150) while all traffic-related fatalities increased 14.1 percent over the same eight years (from 894 to 1,020). The increase in pedestrian fatalities is almost five times the increase in total fatalities—a grim trend.
After an examination of crash data, here are some of the conclusions that have been drawn regarding reasons why pedestrian deaths involving SUVs have skyrocketed:
- Distraction. There’s no doubt that the incidence of distraction is growing, both among drivers and among pedestrians. According to the NHTSA, ten percent of all traffic deaths are caused by distraction. And distracted pedestrians mixed with distracted motorists? Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Rebecca Lindland calls it, “a deadly combination.”
- SUV design. SUVs don’t look like sedans or other passenger cars. Their front ends are blunter and they are taller, which means that when they hit a pedestrian, the victim receives a body blow instead of being hit in the legs. An SUV’s design, simply put, makes it deadlier to pedestrians.
- A greater number of SUVs on the road. More than 50 percent of new passenger vehicle sales are SUVs, and sales have jumped over the past decade. More SUVs translates into more pedestrian deaths when pedestrians are hit.
- More people walk to work. Believe it or not, 4.2 million of us walked to work in 2015, an increase of around 30 percent since 2005. The ages during which a person is most likely to work, 20 to 69, is also the age range with the greatest increase in pedestrian fatality rates.
- Roadway aggression. Some research has revealed that men who drive sports cars and SUVs are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior—according to the men themselves. Women admitted to driving more aggressively when they are behind the wheel of an SUV or light truck. Could it be coincidence that we now have more aggressive driving, and more SUVs on the road, than ever before? It’s not conclusive, but it is intriguing.
Automotive Tech to the Rescue?
As a greater number of vehicles are sold with safety-oriented technology, we may eventually see a drop in traffic deaths of all types. Forward-collision systems warn a driver when a crash appears imminent. Some even brake for the driver if they don’t respond. Many SUVs these days come equipped with such technology, such as those made by Volvo that can detect pedestrians and bicycles. Even Hyundai’s Kona SUV, a less-expensive vehicle, has a pedestrian-detection system.
But from a number of crash reports, including those involving Tesla vehicles and the failure of Uber’s autonomous vehicle in Arizona that resulted in a pedestrian’s death, we know that tech is not a universal panacea. Remaining on the alert and driving defensively are ideas that never go out of style. And, if you often find yourself a pedestrian, whether it is to walk to work, to jog, or just to enjoy the fresh air, don’t ever consult your smartphone. Instead, we hope you’ll stay alert, aware, and alive.