According to pioneering research published in a recent issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention (Vol. 36, p. 295), a pedestrian struck by a motorist operating a sports utility vehicle is more than twice as likely to be killed as a pedestrian hit by a passenger car at the same speed.
Clay Gabler, a professor of mechanical engineering specializing in vehicle technology at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, teamed with co-worker Devon Lefler to investigate the risk to pedestrians from various types of large vehicles, including sports utility vehicles. So-called “light trucks and vans” comprise half of all passenger vehicles sold in the United States. Gabler and Rowan extracted information from four crash databases and found that a pedestrian struck by a person operating a large van is three times as likely to die as someone hit by a person operating a car traveling at the same speed. Pedestrians struck by a person operating a sports utility vehicle are twice as likely to die.
In their report, the researchers observe that reducing this danger would require a radical redesign of sports utility vehicles to replace their blunt front ends with sloping, more aerodynamic fronts. Lower, sloping hoods injure the legs of pedestrians in a crash, but blunt, front ends kill pedestrians through head and chest injuries.
According to Gabler, pedestrians in the United States are losing the safety battle: “Despite over 4,000 pedestrian deaths a year, there are no pedestrian impact safety regulations under serious consideration.” This is particularly troubling since the United States Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has undertaken widely publicized research about the risk that sports utility vehicles pose to other motorists.
The United States’ failure to protect vulnerable pedestrians and bicyclists compares unfavorably to Europe, where the government has created new rules that will force makers of “cars and car-derived vans” to meet strict new pedestrian protection standards starting October 2005. These rules include using new materials to soften the areas around the front of vehicles to reduce impact.
So-called “bull bars,” metal bars mounted on the front of the vehicle, are a growing and deadly trend in America and around the world. A 1998 study by Australia’s University of Adelaide found that the bars increase the danger in crashes between vehicles and pedestrians because they punch the body of the pedestrian away from and then under the vehicle rather than over the vehicle. The bars have caused numerous avoidable injuries and deaths. Pedestrians struck by a vehicle equipped with steel bull bars are seriously hurt or killed at speeds much lower than those that are usually fatal.