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Despite an overall decline in traffic deaths, more pedestrians died on U.S. roadways last year than at any time over the past three decades—continuing a troubling trend even as more cars come with advanced, crash-avoidance systems.
Highway fatalities fell 2.4 percent in 2018, the second year in a row they have fallen. That makes the reported pedestrian death tally of 6,283—a 3.4 percent increase—all the more alarming, says Jake Fisher, senior director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports. There were 53 percent more pedestrians killed last year than in 2009.
The annual death toll—released Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—underscores the need for pedestrian detection and other proven safety technology to come as standard equipment on all new vehicles, Fisher says.
“This is an epidemic of preventable deaths,” he says. “We need to double down to figure out how to achieve better pedestrian detection and more widespread adoption.”
Most of the pedestrian deaths happened in cities, and three-fourths happened at night, according to NHTSA. The majority weren’t at an intersection—so the pedestrian was crossing in the middle of the street. And the presence of alcohol—either in the pedestrian or the driver—greatly increased the probability of a fatal crash, NHTSA reported.
Lowering vehicle speeds, changing urban roads to make them easier and safer for pedestrians to cross, and improving road lighting and vehicle headlights would help, IIHS says. NHTSA said Tuesday it plans to work with the Federal Highway Administration to speed up development of better road designs.
NHTSA also reported an increase in cyclist deaths—857 last year, which is an 6.3 percent increase over 2017. The increase corresponds to a rise in commuting by bicycle in U.S. cities, such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., after local officials have made streets more bike-friendly.
Half of the cyclist deaths happened at night, underscoring the need for bicyclists to be more visible and for drivers to be more vigilant after the sun sets.
So far, only a tiny percentage of vehicles on the road are equipped with pedestrian detection, so the technology isn’t yet in a position to help very much, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It takes decades for the older vehicles on the road to get replaced, the insurance-industry funded research insitute says. And the changing vehicle mix on the road could also be playing a role, with higher horsepower, and more SUVs and pickups, which have front-end designs that can be deadlier for pedestrians, IIHS says.
“The good news is people are walking and biking more,” says Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group. “But that decision to be healthier shouldn’t be a death-defying act.”
Two auto technologies—low-speed automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection—are increasingly common on new cars, and they can work together to either avoid collisions with pedestrians or make the incidents less serious, with fewer deaths. As is the case with many new safety features, some automakers are rolling out these life-saving technologies in optional luxury packages, limiting their reach.
Cars with pedestrian detection features use cameras, radar and other sensors to detect people coming into a vehicle’s path, even if a driver doesn’t see them. If the driver doesn’t react quickly enough, the car can brake itself to either avoid the collision or slow down enough to reduce the severity.
More pedestrian-detection systems are coming to market, both as standard equipment and as part of luxury-option packages, according to data compiled by Consumer Reports. In 2019, 38 percent of models sold in the U.S. had pedestrian-detection as a standard feature, up from 19 percent in 2018.
But not all automakers are rolling out pedestrian detection in the same way. Luxury automakers, such as Audi and BMW, make the feature standard on most models—12 out of 15 for Audi and 14 out of 17 for BMW. All three Tesla models include standard pedestrian detection.
Meanwhile pedestrian detection isn’t standard on any of the 43 models across four brands GM sold in 2019; it was available as an option on 20 models. Fiat Chrysler offered pedestrian detection on as an option on only one of the 20 models it sold last year. But another full-line manufacturer, Toyota, had standard pedestrian detection on 16 of its 19 models.
CR gives credit in our overall scores to new cars and trucks that we test that offer proven safety features as standard equipment. The safety potential of pedestrian detection is important enough that we no longer give models credit for low-speed AEB unless it is paired with pedestrian detection technology.
Pedestrian Detection Still Developing
AAA published research earlier this month that showed the systems “were significantly challenged” to react to common driving scenarios, such as a child darting in front of a car driving at 20 mph or a pedestrian encoutered immediately after the driver makes a right-hand turn. The systems are especially ineffective at night, AAA said.
Chase of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety points out that there are no minimum performance standards to ensure that AEB or pedestrian detection actually work from model to model. And there’s no verification of claims that the technology will work in emergencies or to detect pedestrians, Chase says.
Ethan Douglas, senior policy analyst for Consumer Reports, says that the "technology works, but it needs to be effective in more crashes and should come standard on all cars. Technology that saves lives shouldn’t just be a luxury add-on.”
James Owens, NHTSA’s acting administrator, underscored the importance of new technology when he was on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. Passenger cars on U.S. roads are on average nearly 12 years old today, making the fleet the oldest it has ever been.
“Newer vehicles are safer,” Owens said. “If we can help more people afford new vehicles, we will expect to see significant safety improvements.”
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