Automakers designing for pedestrian safety

By Bill Holloway

Traditionally, improving the safety of pedestrians sharing roads with motor vehicles has been accomplished through policies aimed at reducing vehicle speeds and the likelihood of vehicle-pedestrian collisions. However, in recent years automakers have been working to design cars in ways that reduce the likelihood that pedestrians struck by motor vehicles will die or suffer serious injuries as a result.

The safety of vehicle drivers and occupants has long been a top priority of automakers. There has been a string of technological improvements—seat belts, collapsible steering columns, airbags, and others—that have helped to reduce the rate of traffic fatalities from 7.3 to 1.1 per 100,000,000 miles traveled since 1949. Few changes to vehicles have been aimed at the safety of those outside the car, however.

The most common scenario in vehicle-pedestrian collisions, as detailed in a 2012 University of Michigan report, is for the vehicle bumper to impact a pedestrian’s legs, which results in the pedestrian being swept onto the hood of the car. This often is followed by the head and upper torso striking the surface of the hood and/or the windshield, after which the pedestrian is normally thrown to the ground. A recent Japan Times article describes one of the design changes being implemented by automakers: adding space between these common pedestrian impact zones and the vehicle frame or engine to provide some cushion for pedestrians in the event of a collision. Other pedestrian safety-related design changes include windshield wipers that break away upon impact with pedestrians, and airbags on the outside of vehicle windshields.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) currently is taking part in the development of global pedestrian safety standards that, according to NHTSA administrator David Strickland, eventually could be adopted into U.S. regulation. Such standards already are in place in Europe and Japan and have affected the shape of new cars, making them somewhat taller and bulkier due to the required space between the hood and the engine.

Along with design changes to minimize pedestrian harm in the event of collisions, there has been a great deal of recent innovation in technologies to avoid collisions with pedestrians and cyclists, including automatic sensors and braking systems such as Volvo’s collision avoidance systems described in this bulletin from the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.