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Better vehicle design could save lives but USDOT and NHTSA fail to act

Between 2008 and 2018, pedestrian fatalities increased by 43 percent. Throughout the decade, numerous Department of Transportation officials over two administrations have touted pedestrian safety as a priority. While we have seen some effort by the Federal Highway Administration to study and address the problem, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency in charge of vehicle safety standards, has not.

Last year, Senator Tom Carper asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the relationship between automotive vehicle characteristics and the rise and in pedestrian fatalities. In the findings released last week, the GAO reports that certain automotive vehicle characteristics effect pedestrian fatalities.

The report found that more pedestrians died in crashes where vehicles were:

  1. 11 years old or older compared to newer vehicles,
  2. sport utility vehicles compared to other passenger vehicles, and
  3. traveling over 30 miles per hour compared to vehicles traveling at lower speeds. 

Older Cars

From 2008 to 2018, pedestrian fatalities in crashes that involved cars more than 11 years old increased faster than those of newer cars. Part of that is because the average age of cars on the road is increasing. The GAO report also suggests that part of the difference is that newer cars often have advanced technologies, such as crash avoidance, automatic emergency braking, and blindspot detection, that can help drivers detect and respond to pedestrians. However, the GAO also found that these technologies, and their effectiveness in avoiding pedestrians, is far from perfect and varies in effectiveness across car manufacturers as well as conditions. 

What NHTSA should do

NHTSA has the responsibility and the authority to set safety standards, test vehicles, and provide the data to the public. And they have had plenty of time to do so. In 2008, the United States signed onto United Nations’ international standards, which include testing pedestrian safety crash mitigation technologies. Twelve years later, NHTSA has yet to act. 

NHTSA tests vehicles for safety through their New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) and releases the results in their five-star safety rating. The European equivalent of NCAP began testing vehicles for pedestrian safety in 1997 and added tests for crash mitigation technologies in 2016. Tests for bicyclist safety were added in 2018. The US only tests for the safety of the people in the car, not for people outside the car. NHTSA should adopt tests for pedestrian and bicycle safety from EuroNCAP and reclaim leadership by developing an aggressive and transparent roadmap for more advanced tests. 

SUVs and Large Cars

Bicycling and safe streets advocates often remark on the increasinh in size of cars and Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) and the safety consequences for people biking and walking. The GAO report quantifies that danger. Pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs increased by almost 68 percent, while pedestrian fatalities involving passenger cars and light trucks increased by 47 percent and 25 percent respectively. None of these numbers are good, but the SUV numbers are particularly bad. 

Part of this is that the number of SUVs on the road are increasing, but the GAO reports it also is a result of larger and heavier vehicles on the road. NHTSA’s Pedestrian Crash Data Study found that the probability of death for pedestrians struck by SUVs and light trucks was 3.4 times higher than for pedestrians struck by passenger cars.

At a public hearing earlier this year, NHTSA reported its research on the subject, showing that when hit by a sedan or smaller car, a pedestrian is more likely to be thrown on top of the car, but a pedestrian hit by an SUV is more likely to be pushed under the vehicle. 

What NHTSA should do

This is another place where NHTSA is behind the rest of the world. The European Union tests vehicle bumpers and hoods with pedestrian dummies to help reduce injuries caused during crashes. The result is that a vehicle of the same make and model bought in the United States will be far less safe for pedestrians than one sold in Europe.

It is not that NHTSA doesn’t test the crashworthiness of bumpers, the problem is that NHTSA only tests bumpers to see how well they protect the body of a vehicle – not people hit while biking and walking.


The effects of a drivers’ speed on pedestrians and bicyclists is well documented. The GAO report notes that for more than 60 percent of pedestrian fatalities the speed of the striking vehicle is not recorded. Even the most forgiving vehicle design with the best available technology cannot make up for the impact of dangerous speeds when a driver hits a person. 

What NHTSA should do

The concern with speed is one we generally discuss as an infrastructure design issue, and will continue to do so. Even so, NHTSA has a role as the agency responsible for collecting and analyzing crash data. One of NHTSA’s arguments for why it is slow to address pedestrian safety is the lack of comprehensive data, which puts advocates in the role of pushing for data collection rather than safety improvements.

In addition, as Congress and NHTSA become more involved in the regulatory framework around automated vehicles, regulations that require automated vehicles to obey speed limits would help reduce speeding by these vehicles and vehicles around them. Last year, the European Union announced all new vehicles must be equipped with Intelligent Speed Assist systems by 2022. The US should follow their lead and similarly require systems that assist drivers in obeying speed limits. 

The League and our work

As better safety technology such as automatic emergency braking, blindspot detection, and crash avoidance systems have come to market, the League has been pushing NHTSA to incorporate testing with pedestrians and bicyclists into the NCAP through meetings, testimony, official comments and action alerts. The response from NHTSA has been that such tests are cost-prohibitive and even then, ‘we’re not sure it is worth the cost-benefit’. 

That is unacceptable. We will continue to push NHTSA and to work with allies in Congress like Senator Carper to require better testing that reflects the safety of all road users. This study, from the non-partisan GAO, gives us another tool to demand change. We look forward to working with our congressional allies and all of you to demand more comprehensive safety standards on vehicles.