Memphis, Tennessee can be a dangerous place to walk. In recent weeks, the Commercial Appeal has reported that pedestrian deaths are on the rise in the metropolitan area. In 2017, 37 people died on Memphis streets, ranking it among the most unsafe cities in America for walkers. The culprits are the usual suspects: lack of crosswalks, crumbling infrastructure, and distracted walkers and drivers—topics I touch on in more detail within another one of my blog posts.
Established national studies are now showing a disturbing link between auto type and the likelihood of pedestrian death. For instance, the popular lightweight truck category, that includes SUVs, is proving to be remarkably hazardous to pedestrians. What’s more unfortunate is that the industry has known it for years.
In a 2015 report the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated that walkers and joggers are two to three times more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pickup than when struck by a passenger car. This striking data is supported by an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study, which determined single vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs rose 81 percent from 2009 through 2016.
Light truck vehicles—a term that encompasses vans, pickup trucks, SUVs, and minivans—by design have larger and higher-centered front ends than typical sedans. Such a body style can deliver a far more lethal impact to pedestrians, due in part to stiffer and heavier frames. The difference is most striking by the fact that sedans hit pedestrian in the legs, while SUVs are more likely to strike a person’s chest or head and causing mortal injuries.
The IIHS study also reports that nearly 6,000 pedestrians died traversing American roadways in 2016—up from 4,109 in 2009 for a 46 percent increase. At the same time, purchases of trucks and SUVs have continued to overtake passenger car sales, putting more of these larger vehicles at odds with pedestrians.
While both federal regulators and the auto industry itself are aware such vehicles pose a deadly danger to pedestrians, legislation has yet to add pedestrian risk as a factor to vehicle safety ratings—mostly due to the opposition of automakers. While cutting edge technology such as crash avoidance systems and emergency braking could curb this growing number of occurrences, such features are neither mandated nor widely used within the industry to date—meaning that more unnecessary deaths are down the road unless we as a society push for change.