We Should be Designing Motor Vehicles For Cyclist and Pedestrian Safety

We Should be Designing Motor Vehicles For Cyclist and Pedestrian Safety. Photo Credit: Shutterstock Photo by Shutterstock

While passenger motor vehicles have grown safer for their occupants, the opposite is true for vulnerable users like cyclists and pedestrians. Since 2009, pedestrian fatalities have increased by 80 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Since 2009, cyclist fatalities have increased by over 50 percent. This comes at a time when all other traffic deaths rose by just 18 percent. Texting, speeding, road rage, increased speed limits, and increased motor vehicle traffic have made the roads more dangerous for all road users in the past decade and a half, including drivers. But motor vehicle occupants have remained relatively insulated from the increased danger due to safer vehicle design: additional airbags, electronic stability control, automatic emergency braking systems, forward collision warning, lane departure detection, and "blind spot" detection are just a few examples of these features that first and foremost protect occupants. Meanwhile, cyclists and pedestrians are being killed at higher and higher rates, with very little thought being invested into how motor vehicle design impacts them. Yet, there are a number of very simple solutions that we could take to make cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks safer for cyclists and pedestrians. New and expensive technology does not necessarily need to be created to achieve this goal.

Physical Characteristics of a Deadly Vehicle

Making cars and trucks smaller is the most beneficial thing we can do to make motor vehicles safer for everyone. Of course, this would be incredibly difficult to implement given the fact that motor vehicle size is continuing to go up as gas mileage (and EV range) increases. Manufacturers persuading consumers to purchase smaller (and cheaper) vehicles seems about as likely as the federal or state governments being capable of implementing size restrictions.

  1. Weight—The greater the mass, the more killing power a vehicle has. Passenger vehicles steadily packed on the pounds ever since they began being mass produced in the early 20th century. By the mid 1970s, the average car weighed roughly 4,000 pounds before high gas prices forced manufacturers to start downsizing—cars, that is. Pickup trucks, in turn, got even heavier. The average pickup now weighs between 6,000 and 7,000 pounds. Those seeking larger vehicles have also turned to the SUV, with large model SUVs weighing about as much as a large pickup truck. Reducing the weight of vehicles helps keep vulnerable road users, particularly children, alive if they do get struck.
  2. Height—The height of a vehicle's hood also increases the severity of injury cyclists and pedestrians face when they are struck by a distracted or aggressive driver. While shorter vehicles hit the victim in the leg or hip and propel them up and over the hood, tall vehicles impact the victim's chest or head, and simply roll over them if they are not ejected out of the way. Furthermore, some pickup trucks are now so tall (a hood height of over five feet is not uncommon) that it is nearly impossible for the driver of a truck or SUV to even see a pedestrian or cyclist crossing the street in front of them in the crosswalk.

Redesigning the Front End

In addition to reducing the size of motor vehicles, legislatures and consumers could potentially pressure automakers into implementing safety features designed around pedestrians and cyclists, not the vehicle occupants. Examples include:

  • Bumper Shape—ACL and other soft tissue injuries are likely to occur when the bumper and leading edge of the hood impacts a pedestrian's femur. Changing the design of the bumper—in terms of material, depth, and bumper placement—could potentially reduce the chances of serious leg injuries.
  • Increasing the Clearance Between the Hood and Engine—Many vulnerable road user head injuries occur when the victim's head hits the hood of the vehicle. While the hood itself is relatively flexible and therefore "soft," the solid engine block underneath is not. By increasing the inside clearance between the hood and the engine to at least 10 centimeters (4 inches), a pedestrian's head has more "cushion" room before impacting the engine.
  • Windshield and Hood Airbags—Volvo implemented their V40 with a windshield airbag that deploys when the vehicle senses a front impact at the bumper. The airbag is designed to protect the head of a pedestrian when they are lifted off their feet and over the hood of the car. Windshield and hood/bumper airbags could be deployed to further increase the chances of a pedestrian surviving a collision.

Pedestrian/Cyclist Collision Avoidance Technologies

Most auto-maker vulnerable road user research and development is focused on helping the driver see or notice the pedestrian or cyclist, and therefore avoid the collision. It can be argued that features such as blind spot detection, forward collision warnings, lane departure warnings, rudimentary autopilot systems, and pedestrian "detection" warnings simply enable drivers to drive in an even more distracted state than would otherwise be possible. However, these are the most likely safety features that will be mass-implemented following the NHTSA's Crashworthiness Pedestrian Protection Testing Program, which is set to begin within the year.

What is the Government Doing About All This?

Not a whole lot. The NHTSA's Crashworthiness Pedestrian Protection Testing Program, which might begin sometime in 2023, will "encourage pedestrian safety improvements in vehicles by adding tests that will show whether a vehicle can offer better protection to pedestrians in the event of a collision." Meaning, the NHTSA will create a pedestrian ‘safety score' for consumers to look over when deciding between the 6,000 pound F-150 and the 7,000 pound F-250.

According to the NHTSA, "Vehicles must be designed to protect their occupants while increasing safety for those outside the vehicle, too." It's nice to hear the NHTSA say this, and this testing program could not have come at a more prudent time, but the only rule change the NHTSA might implement is mandating automatic emergency braking in all new vehicles, which might include pedestrian AEB for newly manufactured "light vehicles." Poor hood and bumper design, deadly vehicle height and weight, and other dangerous features will be allowed to remain in design, regardless of what the testing reveals.

Speed Limiters

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was set to reduce the speed at which heavy commercial trucks could travel, by using speed limiters, but the effort was recently thwarted by Congressman Josh Brecheen (R-Okla.) with the introduction of the Deregulating Restrictions on Interstate Vehicles and Eighteen-Wheelers (DRIVE) Act, lobbied heavily by various trucking associations. Speed limiters in private vehicles (as well as commercial) would dramatically change the landscape of American roadways, improving safety for everyone. Moreover, the technology to implement speed limiters already exists. However, this goal is surely a long, uphill battle.

Reach out to Brad Tucker if You Were Injured in a Colorado Bike Crash

Drivers make choices. There is no such thing as an accident. If you were injured in a bike collision, the driver can be held accountable for their negligence, and you can seek compensation that matches the severity of your injuries and damages. Call Brad Tucker at Colorado Bike Law today at 303.694.9300 to schedule a free consultation.