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SUVs Kill Pedestrians—and They Have for a Long Time

While much focus is on the future of autonomous vehicles, the increase in pedestrian deaths related to SUVs remains a largely ignored issue.
July 15, 2019, 5am PDT | Camille Fink
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Lissandra Melo

Recent debates about self-driving vehicles and public safety have overshadowed the long-standing issue of SUVs, writes Henry Grabar. The overall number of traffic fatalities decreased in 2018, but pedestrian and cyclist deaths are on the rise. More SUVs are on the road, and that is part of the problem, says Grabar:

In February, the Governors Highway Safety Association estimated that more than 6,200 pedestrians died in 2018—the highest number in a generation, and an increase of 50 percent from 2009. The GHSA says SUVs are partially responsible: Their involvement in fatal crashes is up 50 percent, compared with 30 percent for sedans.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has known for years that the weight, higher bumpers, and limited visibility of SUVs mean pedestrians are more likely to be killed when struck by the vehicles. "The regulators did nothing. If another product saw its nonuser death count spike by 50 percent in 10 years, consumers would revolt and Congress would make a big show of getting to the bottom of it. Automobiles are different," argues Grabar.

Regulation in Europe—where SUV sales are up, but pedestrian deaths decreased by over a third between 2007 and 2016— could provide some clues for the U.S., notes Grabar. Safety assessments of European vehicles include a "vulnerable road users" criterion. "In America, by contrast, NHTSA ratings have three primary categories: frontal crash, side crash, and rollover. What happens to the people you hit? Who knows."

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Published on Friday, July 5, 2019 in Slate
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