July 8, 2020

The Truth About SUVs & The Myth About Pedestrian Distraction


We seem obsessed with bigger is better in vehicle purchases, with over 1.4 million sport utility vehicles (SUVs)  and crossovers sold in the first three months of 2018 in the United States. The SUV is a vehicle built on a truck platform, while a crossover is a unibody construction on a car platform, and is supposed to be more maneuverable and parkable. Both of these are large vehicles and are outselling sedans.

Trucks and SUVs comprise 60 percent of new vehicle purchases in the United States.  From 2009 to 2016 pedestrian deaths have risen 46 percent and are directly linked to the increase of these larger vehicles on the road.

Statistics show that SUVs with the high front end grille are twice as likely to kill pedestrians because of the high engine profile, but this information has not been well publicized. In the United States a federal initiative to include pedestrian crash survival rates into the vehicle ranking system was halted by opposing automakers.

When a SUV hits a pedestrian the vehicle hits a person’s internal organs; in a lower profile vehicle or sedan the vehicle is striking at the knees. SUVs also have more  powerful engines and SUV drivers exhibit riskier higher speed behaviours which researcher Kelcie Ralph says is an ongoing trend in North American culture.

We’ve seen cities like Berlin actively discuss banning SUVS after  a SUV driver in Berlin lost control of his vehicle and killed four people on a sidewalk, a grandmother and grandson and two twenty year old men.

Think about how radical even suggesting a municipal  ban on  SUVs  is~car manufacturers design vehicles for the safety of the occupants, not for the safety of a vulnerable road user  that might be crashed into  and killed by the vehicle. Talking about banning these killing machines is a  new way at looking at the problem and a 180 degree shift from what vehicle manufacturers have been saying for over 100 years.

The auto industry has historically maintained that vehicle drivers are not the problem, but  pedestrians are.

Look at the creation of the class laden word “jaywalker” first used in 1917 to describe  “an idiot, dull, rube, unsophisticated, poor, or simpleton”. A jaywalker described someone who was “stupid by crossing the street in an unsafe place or way, or some country person visiting the city who wasn’t used to the rules of the road”.

Today the jaywalker myth is perpetuated in “educational” campaigns that say  pedestrian distraction is a function in pedestrian deaths. Studies prove that it is not, although the focus on saying pedestrian distraction is a problem takes the onus off the real culprit~the automobile manufacturers and the vehicle drivers.

This compendium report by the New York City Department of Transportation shows that while pedestrians using a mobile device walk slower and increase their crossing time, they are still faster crossing than those walking in group or senior citizens. Instead New York City is targeting drivers’ unsafe speed or behaviours by expanding their speed camera program, undertaking street safety redesign, and installing leading pedestrian intervals.

And this research review just published in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives shows that one-third of transportation planners erroneously think distracted walking is a problem and want to support pedestrian education campaigns instead of slowing speeds. The report authored by  Dr. Kelcie Ralph and  Dr. Ian Girardeau show that headphones do not impact walking and that distracted people are actually more likely to stay in the crosswalk.

Talking on the phone or texting while walking has the same impact as the perceptions of  a person over 65 crossing the street. In their review, Dr.  Ralph and Dr. Girardeau found that the people  most likely to be hit crossing the street were people that could not change their crossing speed.  There is no correlation between distracted use of the phone and deaths in studies in campus towns where cell phone use is rampant. As  Dr. Ralph states “Beware of publication bias and hype” that prefers to victim blame.

As the researchers  point out:  “Concern about distracted walking detracts attention from more deadly risk factors, more effective policy approaches, and, most importantly, is inconsistent with the ethos of making streets safe for all users, including children, the elderly, and vision impaired people. Instead of focusing on educational campaigns, practitioners should focus their pedestrian safety efforts on the biggest risk factors and the most effective solutions.”

This recommendation goes directly into the Safe Systems Approach  based on the principle that  life and health should not be compromised by our need to travel. Risk factors include  road design, vehicular speed, driver inattention, use of alcohol/drugs and the type of vehicle using the road. This is also the mantra of Vision Zero where no serious injuries or road deaths arise from the shared use of the road.

With the Safe Systems Approach the cities of Minneapolis and Seattle have lowered speeds within city limits to 20 miles per hour (30 km/h) and the Province of British Columbia has installed speed cameras at high crash intersections.

The City of London England has banned trucks with severely limited cab visibility that were responsible for 70 percent of cyclist deaths, and implemented congestion charges to lower the number of vehicles entering the inner city.

Meanwhile, the automotive manufacturers continue to design and develop larger and larger vehicles, marketing them as safe moveable dens for the occupants, with no standards  to ensure the safety of people outside the vehicle.

The video below describes the new 2021 Dodge  Durango, which will “catapult your family from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds” with 710 horsepower from a 6.2 litre V8 engine.





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  1. Left turns at intersections are especially dangerous with modern vehicles due to safety regulations that require airbags and beefed-up structural integrity in the A-pillars, which have become quite wide as a result. As your car turns left, a pedestrian walking toward you in the crosswalk can easily get hidden behind the A pillar and at typical walking and turning speeds it’s very easy for him to stay hidden as you close in. Your brain sees an empty crosswalk disappearing into the left side of the A-pillar as you turn and empty crosswalk appearing out of its right side, and you’re fooled into thinking that you have a nice clear view of an open path ahead.

    It’s really important for motorists to bob their head from side to side while turning left so as to look “around” the pillar for pedestrians who may be hidden like this. And it’s equally important for pedestrians to be especially wary of left turning vehicles. It’s easy for a pedestrian to feel like he’s right out in the open and the driver would have to be blind to miss him, but in fact it’s all too possible for the driver to be completely oblivious.

    1. Absolutely agree – those pillars really block pedestrian visibility, even in bright daylight conditions.
      It’s also surprising how the walking pace of a pedestrian walking towards you can keep him/her in that blindspot for longer than you would think as you execute the turn.

    2. Before the era of universal airbags, Volvo designed an A pillar with an open web behind the windscreen so that it was still partially transparent. This was particularly in recognition of the danger the pillar posed to pedestrians. I thought it a neat idea at the time.

    1. Both. Maybe you could read the article?

      “Statistics show that SUVs with the high front end grille are twice as likely to kill pedestrians because of the high engine profile…”

      1. Yes a high engine and a heavy car are no match for a person. Again speed matters as there’s time to break.

        I find the speed fines ridiculous – worthy another pricetag article. If you go 120 km/h in a 100 km/h highway zone [ usually no pedestrians anywhere near it ] that is NOT NEARLY AS DANGEROUS as driving 50 km/h in a 30 km/h school zone with young vulnerable kids around, yet its the same fine. That makes no sense at all. In addition we find more “speed traps” on these relatively safe highways than on residential streets where far too many folks routinely go 70 in a 50 km/h zone or 50 in a 30 km/h zone, which is far FAR more dangerous.

        Modern technology now allows cars (as opposed to the driver) to know what the actual speed limit is. Perhaps an automatic warning or even speed limit system is in order in modern cars so you can’t drive 55 in a 30 km/h school zone when school is in session perhaps because you missed the sign.

        To me that is far more note worthy than an SUV vs sedan study.

        1. There is also no reason for people to be driving around in such big Bournemouths 90% of the time. It is status. It is false assumptions. It is flipping the finger to humanity. It is flipping the finger to everybody but oneself.

  2. Increased car and suv weight also promotes something of an arms race among the automobiles in addition to putting other road users at risk. In a collision, the occupants of the heavier vehicle usually fare better than the occupants of the lighter vehicle. Having vehicles of similar weight improves the odds and lets the crumple zones operate properly. To that end, vehicle safety regulations could home in on an ideal weight and base vehicle taxes on weights above the ideal weight. Such a weight might be 1,500 kg. (This might not seem that light to some people, but electric vehicles tend to be on the heavy side.) I wouldn’t start the tax scale at zero, in effect to push the vehicle weights to as low as they would go, because the crash statistics on very light cars are not that promising. They seem particularly prone to occupant death when striking stationary objects like telephone poles at speed.

    Another possibility is to create a separate vehicle safety regime in low speed conditions. So for vehicles intended to roads with 50kph or less speed limits, they would be allowed to be built much lighter because they would never have to deal with the safety hazard of a 100kph collision. Halving the speed at which a vehicle is supposed to be survivable in a collision would probably decrease the required weight by even more than half. This being a huge energy savings as well. But as referred to above, such a vehicle safety regime would probably only be workable in a world where speed limits and red lights were actually followed which is quite distinct from our own world.

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