Unless they happen to be lying down in the middle of the road, people don’t actually get “run over.” Most of us, if hit by a car, will catapult onto the hood, which of course is bad enough.
An American pedestrian gets hit by a car and injured every 7.5 minutes. In fact, pedestrians are the third largest category of U.S. traffic fatalities (5,300 deaths last year), but up until now we’ve done very little to protect them. Fortunately, that’s changing. Europe (which enacted legislation in 2005 and strengthened it in 2010) and Japan (also starting in 2005) have acted on pedestrian safety regulation, but the U.S. has lagged behind. "I don't know of any American legislation on this," said Michael Brooks, the acting director of the Center for Auto Safety. "There's no rulemaking or anything."
So what kind of onboard technology can actually protect pedestrians? What seems to be working is a combination of electronic pedestrian detection—as seen on Volvos—and cars that will do less damage when you’re hit by them.
I know that sounds a bit crazy—a car is a 3,000-pound speeding metal missile in the best of circumstances—but safer cars for pedestrians are already on the market from Mercedes and other automakers. And now Buick is introducing its own tech—active-hood pedestrian safety—on the 2018 Regal Sportback. Here's what it looks like on video:
The system (active between 16 and 30 mph) uses pressure sensors in the front bumper that can differentiate between contact with a human leg and some less precious object, such as a tree or a metal pole. Once the sensor is activated, pyrotechnic actuators (fast-moving pistons) lift the rear part of the hood about four inches in just milliseconds. Wahaj Hussain, Buick's active hood performance engineer, says the raised hood acts "like a catcher's mitt" to give the pedestrian "a nice cushion" to land on. It's not exactly a silk pillow, it it's better than encountering the engine and shock tower. It's unclear if the tech will extend beyond the Regal, but Hussain said, "Obviously, we have the technology, and we're ready if the regulation comes up."
The raised hood isn’t exactly “soft,” but it’s more receptive to a falling human body because now it’s up above the engine and can be deformed by the impact. Buick is one of the first U.S. automakers to offer the safety hood, though it’s also on the Tesla Model S—in Europe and Australia. American models don’t get the “Active Hood” because it’s not required by law here.
Pedestrian activists say the active hood is a step in the right direction, but not the whole picture. "It's about time Americans started talking about this issue," said Ian Thomas, the Missouri-based state and local program director of America Walks. "Those protections are good, but they're not getting at the cause of pedestrian fatalities, which are poorly designed roads, speeding, and inappropriate education." Thomas said that some cities, including New York, have seen dramatic drops in cars injuring walkers after "traffic calming" initiatives were taken. And speeding is a big factor--the faster the car is going, the more likely it is to kill pedestrians it hits.
The active hood concept is hardly new. The 2010 Honda Insight hybrid not only had an energy-absorbing hood, but also deformable hood hinges and windshield wiper pivots, as well as impact-designed front fenders.
And Mercedes, Honda, and others were talking about pedestrian safety way back in 2004, when I wrote two articles on the subject for The New York Times. Siemens had already developed a fiber-optic sensor system that could determine, in milliseconds, whether a person or lamppost was hit. Again, despite the heavy death toll on American roads, it was Europe and Japan that showed the most interest. The European Union back then had 7,000 pedestrian deaths per year (a fifth of all traffic fatalities). Japan had 2,700 pedestrian deaths (30 percent of the traffic toll).
As we all know, Americans don’t walk as much as Europeans, so that’s perhaps why the issue hasn’t been on our radar. But we do have 5,000 pedestrian deaths annually. And automakers here are finally starting to think about it.
The American expatriate Bill Bryson was amazed, when moving back here from England, at how little Americans actually walk compared to our European counterparts. But now we’re trying to encourage walkable cities, so U.S. cars will have to share the road with people far more than under business as usual. Here's a bunch of Volvo whackos testing their cars' ability to detect pedestrians--even without a driver behind the wheel:
And here's an animation from Buick that shows how the tech works: