New technology shows promise reducing skyrocketing pedestrian fatalities

Key Points
  • The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found digital safety systems that can spot pedestrians and apply a vehicle's brakes automatically can help preventing many pedestrian collisions and reducing the severity of others.
  • Federal regulators are also looking at updating automotive lighting regulations that have gone largely unchanged since the 1970s. Lighting systems in Europe could help drivers spot pedestrians sooner.
Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim had only a moment to swerve to avoid hitting a car that had stalled out in the middle of I-690 earlier this week, but he couldn't avoid the other car's driver, who had exited his vehicle and was trying to cross the freeway.

The deadly accident was just one of hundreds that have so far occurred this year, part of a rising tide of pedestrian fatalities that automotive safety advocates and government regulators are struggling to address. Over the past decade, the numbers have risen by nearly 50 percent, to around 6,000 annually, and could continue to grow, experts warn, due to a variety of factors.

But a new study released this week by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety highlights one possible response, the introduction of new, digital safety systems that can spot pedestrians and apply a vehicle's brakes automatically, preventing many pedestrian collisions and reducing the severity of others. Another option would be to improve lighting systems so that drivers can see better and have more time to react. 

"We want to encourage manufacturers to include pedestrian detection capabilities as they equip more of their vehicles with automatic emergency braking systems," said David Aylor, the IIHS manager of Active Safety Testing. "We also want to arm consumers with information about these systems so they can make smart choices when shopping for a new vehicle."

The Institute tested 11 small SUVs equipped Automatic Emergency Braking, or AEB, systems with the added capability of detecting and responding to pedestrians who have entered a vehicle's path. Of those, four earned a "superior" rating, five more pronounced "advanced." Only one, the BMW X1, failed to earn some level of endorsement, its system functioning so poorly that a crash dummy in one test was sent "airborne," according to the insurance trade group.

The decision to start out by testing a group of SUVs should come as no surprise. Utility vehicles, in general, now account for about two out of three new car purchases by U.S. motorists these days. But, more significantly, an earlier report by the IIHS warned that the tall, blunt noses of SUVs — as well as pickups – tend to be more deadly than lower, rounder sedans and coupes.

That translates into a more blunt-force impact, IIHS President David Harkey noted last year, and less likelihood that a pedestrian being struck by an SUV might be able to roll off the vehicle and reduce injuries.

The increasing presence of utility vehicles is only one of the reasons why federal data shows pedestrian fatalities jumped 46 percent from 2009 to 2017 – and while last year's data has not yet been released it is expected to show another increase. Experts also worry that the situation is compounded by digital distraction. Drivers aren't the only ones staring at their smartphones. So are many pedestrians who walk into intersections without checking for traffic or even to see if they have the right of way.

"We've got distracted drivers and we've got distracted pedestrians, and that is a deadly combination," Rebecca Lindland, an independent auto analyst, noted in a statement following the release of the 2017 pedestrian fatality statistics last May.

There are yet other factors contributing to the rise in pedestrian fatalities. Traffic volume has risen sharply since the end of the last recession, much of it on poorly designed roadways.

Last September, the National Transportation Safety Board gathered safety and industry experts together to try to find ways to address the problem. The board's staff pointed to a number of other issues, including drug use and increased urbanization. And the agency released a list of 11 recommendations aimed at resolving the problem.

The Governors Highway Safety Administration stressed that "there is no single, universal solution to this issue," the group said in a statement. "States and localities should reserve the right to examine and evaluate the pedestrian safety problems their communities face and implement the solutions that best fit their needs."

The City of New York has underscored that by targeting roadway redesign and updated markings that in 2017 garnered credit for helping reduce pedestrian fatalities to just 101, the lowest total since the city started keeping records in 1910.

But experts believe that a significant part of the process will require changes in vehicle design. Mark Rosekind, the last administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Barack Obama, is a big advocate of high-tech solutions, arguing that fully autonomous vehicles could eventually eliminate all but a small number of highway crashes of all types.

It's a matter of intense debate how soon truly hands-free vehicles will be ready for prime time, however, something highlighted by a fatal pedestrian crash in Tempe, Arizona, last March involving an autonomous Uber prototype. But the newly released IIHS study, along with other recent data, suggests that even now, what are known as advanced driver assistance systems can play a role.

"The best possible outcome is to avoid hitting a pedestrian altogether," said IIHS manager Aylor. "When a crash is unavoidable, sharply reducing a vehicle's travel speed would give someone on foot a far greater chance of surviving any injuries in a similar real-world encounter with a passenger vehicle."

Federal regulators are also looking at updating automotive lighting regulations that have gone largely unchanged since the 1970s.

The rules currently in place are "very old," NTSB project manager Deb Bruce said during the autumn hearing, and don't "allow manufacturers to design headlights that are optimized to help" a driver see what's ahead.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently began the process of rulemaking that could allow the use of lighting technology widely available in Europe but banned here. Known as Adaptive Driving Beams, they don't require a driver to flip back and forth between high and low beams. Instead, sensors avoid creating glare for oncoming traffic by masking out some of the light, as needed. The technology is so precise, "You can highlight a person walking along the road but not their head so you don't blind them," said Steffen Pietzonka, a senior marketing executive with Hella, one of the world's largest suppliers of automotive lighting.

Because of the process involved in such a major change in rules, it will likely be several years before any updates are in place and ADB technology isn't expected to show up on U.S. roads for another year or two after that.

Still other lighting technologies are under study, including laser-powered headlamps. In Europe, they can spotlight obstacles nearly a half-mile away, but versions now showing up in the U.S. are severely more limited in power.

One way or another, "We've got to end this tragic problem on our nation's roadways," NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said last November. This week's fatal pedestrian crash involving Syracuse coach Boeheim made that painfully clear.