Pedestrian Deaths Down (But the Toll's Still Too Damned High)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 07, 2014

Good news! U.S. pedestrian traffic deaths were down 8.7 percent in the first half of 2013 (compared to the same period in 2012).

A warning that isn't heeded often enough. (Utah Department of Transportation)
A warning that isn't heeded often enough. (Utah Department of Transportation)

Overall, what we may want to call “walkers” (with apologies to the Walking Dead) are staying alive at a heartening rate. In 1975, the first data year, 7,516 pedestrians were hit by cars, but the number dropped to 4,109 in 2009 (the best year so far). If the second half of 2013 turns out as good as the first half (1,985 fatalities), we’ll be below 4,000 deaths.

I live near New York City, and I’m appalled by the death tolls on the roads there, not just pedestrians but bikers, too. In 2013, 173 walkers died crossing the street. To give a human face to that, in early January nine-year-old Cooper Stock was on West End Avenue when he was hit by a cab. He was holding his father’s hand in a crosswalk at the time.

New York Mayor Bill De Blasio has pledged to do something about that, committing himself to the goals of VisionZero, which imagines zero tolerance for pedestrian deaths. The solutions are simple enough—slowing traffic down, improving road design—and they’ve been implemented in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and London, among others. As New York magazine points out, De Blasio should be judged on his follow-through here. Reports VisionZero:

One New Yorker is killed every 35 hours in a traffic crash. And for every eight traffic fatalities, New Yorkers suffer one hundred life-altering serious injuries—nearly 34,000 over the past eight years—including the loss of limb, immobility, traumatic brain injury or chronic pain….Being struck by a car is the most common cause of injury-related death among children 1 to14 years of age and the second-most common cause among those aged 15 and older.

Another way we’re going to keep the positive trend going is by making cars safer. The Europeans have been leading in pedestrian-protection technology. The goal is to have people pushed up onto the hood, rather than just smashed forward with maximum damage. That’s why front ends are getting lower.

Active hood systems as on this Mercedes are making cars safer for pedestrians. (Daimler photo)
Active hood systems as on this Mercedes are making cars safer for pedestrians. (Daimler photo)

Mercedes is leading here with energy-absorbing bumpers, flush-fit door handles, folding exterior mirrors and recessed wipers—all to reduce damage to pedestrians in accidents. And all new Benzes have a foam-filled front spoiler lip, which makes for a softer point of contact with the car. The piece de resistance is the “active bonnet [hood] system.” There is a trio of impact sensors in the front of the car, and special pre-tensioned hood hinges. If the sensors detect a pedestrian impact, the back of the hood lifts, which creates “added space for deformation.”

What does that mean, exactly? If the hood isn’t sitting directly on top of the engine, it can get dented in, which reduces the crash intensity (and also tends to keep the victim on the car, rather than thrown off it). Even cars without that kind of system are engineered with more space under the hood.

There are big engineering challenges here, since a too-soft bumper might not do its job and protect the car’s occupants. But it’s worth doing, because, although improving, the pedestrian death toll is still far too high. We need a combination of redesigned roads, slower speeds, more alert drivers and cars that minimize impact on Americans bold enough to get out and walk. Here's a video on how cars are getting safer for pedestrians:


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