The United States is experiencing an unprecedented pedestrian fatality crisis. Although Americans drove less during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 pedestrian fatality rate per vehicle miles traveled increased an unprecedented 21 percent from 2019. Speeding drivers taking advantage of empty streets and the increasing presence of larger, more dangerous vehicles have made it much easier for drivers to kill pedestrians. Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous Americans—as well as vulnerable populations including children, people with disabilities, and elderly Americans—were disproportionately killed at higher rates.
New evidence suggests a correlation between increasing popularity of larger vehicles—SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans—and increasing pedestrian deaths. The share of new car sales of larger vehicles jumped from 47 percent in 2009 to 74 percent last year. Fueling that increase were SUVs, which gained significant popularity over that time period.
Despite newer SUVs consistently ranking among the safest vehicles by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), their design makes them particularly dangerous to pedestrians. When struck by an SUV, pedestrians are hit at higher, more vulnerable parts of the body and tend to land on their heads when they fall. But NHTSA safety evaluations only consider the safety of vehicle occupants, not people outside of the vehicle. As a result, SUVs can score well on safety rankings, despite a 2015 NHTSA report (PDF) acknowledging that pedestrians are two to three times more likely to die when struck by an SUV or pickup truck than by a passenger car.
Without assessing the data on the dangers of larger vehicles to pedestrians, policymakers may be missing a key strategy to address the pedestrian fatality crisis. We’ve identified three ways policymakers can begin to understand the danger larger vehicles pose to pedestrians—and start saving lives.
1. Recognize that pedestrian deaths are not inevitable, and change safety practices and regulations.
Approaches to reducing pedestrian fatalities in the US have largely focused the criminalization of walking and other tactics that place blame on those hit by vehicles. A Safe System approach is ideal, as it embeds the differences in risk between vehicles and pedestrians into street design and attempts to decrease human injury by minimizing opportunities for pedestrian-vehicle collision. Those strategies may include rethinking vehicle designs in newer SUVs based on their increased risk to pedestrians.
2. Use data to understand the danger large vehicles pose to pedestrians.
The 2015 NHTSA report that determined SUVs and light trucks were a higher risk to pedestrians used data from 2006 and earlier. Modern SUVs and trucks are larger than they were then; pickup trucks, for example, are nearly 32 percent heavier than they were in 1990. The increased size has led to taller hoods and larger blind spots, making them more deadly to pedestrians. In one small Michigan study that used more recent data, 100 percent of pedestrians were killed when an SUV struck them going 40 mph or faster, compared with 54 percent of people struck by passenger cars at the same speed. This evidence, though, is preliminary; the study had a sample size of 79, which is too small to make statistically significant conclusions.
More comprehensive traffic crash data that incorporate vehicle type can better illustrate which people and areas are particularly vulnerable and allow policymakers to create data-driven street design interventions and vehicle regulations. These data can lead to evidence-based investments in traffic-calming treatments that induce slower speeds in intersections with high numbers of pedestrian injuries and fatalities.
3. Incorporate pedestrian safety into SUV and light truck regulations.
Unlike the US, the European Union has seen a 23 percent decline in pedestrian deaths between 2010 and 2019, in part because it has set regulations on vehicles to protect pedestrians. The European New Car Assessment Programme includes a test to determine vehicles’ threat to pedestrians and cyclists. The EU has also recently mandated that new sold vehicles have safety features, such as automated emergency braking that detects pedestrians and cyclists. In comparison, NHTSA only tests for the safety of passengers within vehicles and has avoided incorporating similar interventions.
NHTSA recommended including pedestrian safety tests in its new car assessment program in 2015, but as of October 2021, it has not decided whether it will include these tests. Based on the successes of similar programs in the EU, the US can incorporate vetted test procedures and include the risk to pedestrians in their safety ratings to reduce pedestrian fatalities.
Pedestrian injuries and deaths have long been a low priority for federal regulators. But by acknowledging that pedestrian fatalities can be prevented, using data effectively, and enacting regulations that have effectively lowered the pedestrian fatality rate in other nations, the US can begin to prioritize pedestrian safety and work toward zero pedestrian deaths.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly included vans in the definition of large vehicles (corrected 10/21/2021).
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.