More than 36,000 people were killed in car crashes in the United States in 2018, but nearly one in five people killed in those crashes were not inside of a car. They were pedestrians or cyclists, who are dying in increasing numbers every year on American roads. In 2018, 6,283 pedestrians were killed by cars and trucks—that’s 17 every day—up 43 percent from 2008.
A new report from the Government Accountability Office about pedestrian safety found that at least part of this death toll is due to the total inaction of government safety regulators, who have known about the dangers to pedestrians increasingly large vehicles on American roads present, but have done nothing about it.
The GAO found the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency within the Department of Transportation, has made no progress on safety standards that could save at the very least hundreds of lives a year.
Despite signing international agreements to implement regulations and rating systems geared to protect people outside of cars, the NHTSA simply hasn’t done it, even as more and more people die on American roads.
Before we get into the report, you may be wondering how much car design really has to do with whether or not a pedestrian dies when getting hit by a car. It’s true that if a car is going fast and hits a person, the exact size and shape of the big metal box on wheels is not especially important. As the GAO report notes, the vast majority of deadly crashes occur at speeds of 31 mph or higher, and it’s unclear how much vehicle design matters at speeds that high.
But there are two types of car design choices that matter, especially at lower speeds. First is the overall size and weight of the vehicle. A person is 3.4 times more likely to die if struck by a pickup truck or SUV as opposed to a sedan, according to a 1998 NHTSA-funded study cited by the GAO report.
This is both common sense—getting hit by bigger, heavier things hurts more—and also a product of vehicle dimensions and crash physics, since an SUV or truck is more likely to hit a person higher up on the body and knock them down, increasing the risk of running the person over (for more on the links between the SUV craze and pedestrian deaths, read this excellent 2018 Detroit Free Press investigation). On the other hand, a sedan may take a person’s legs out and smack them onto the hood. I can attest from personal experience that this also hurts, but is less likely to result in a head injury or being run over by a thousand-pound machine.
There have been more of these bigger, deadlier vehicles on the road in recent years. In 2019, light trucks (which includes both pickups and SUVs) accounted for 73 percent of the U.S. new vehicle market, up from 57 percent in 2015. In other words, three out of four new vehicles sold in the U.S. last year were the ones several times more likely to kill a pedestrian in a crash.
The other kind of design choice that matters when it comes to pedestrian safety has to do with the specifics of each car: what the bumper height is and what it is made out of, whether there is space for the hood to compress and act as a sort of cushion, and other small decisions that, on aggregate, can make it more likely a pedestrian is not killed in the event they are hit by said car.
The problem, as the GAO report details, is that the NHTSA has said or done nothing to require or incentivize these design decisions. In one telling example, the only regulations that exist regarding vehicle bumpers are to limit vehicle body damage. It has nothing to do with protecting people hit by said bumper. Nor do any regulations exist for vehicle hoods to absorb energy efficiently during a crash.
At the heart of the problem is the NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), the one that results in the star-rating system you hear about on all those car commercials. NCAP does precisely zero assessment related to the safety of a vehicle for those outside the car. It’s all about the people inside the car.
This is not the case in other countries. Since 2016, the European and Japanese NCAP programs have tested pedestrian safety in much the same way they test passenger safety, by slamming the car into stuff with crash test dummies (both child and adult sized, daytime and at night) and seeing what happened. So, too, is there an international standard, established in 2008, to require vehicle bumpers and hoods to have absorption capabilities to limit pedestrian injuries in the event of a crash.
In theory, the U.S. should be doing this too. In 2008, the U.S., along with other countries, approved these United Nations’ international standards, which also included the crash mitigation tests, according to the GAO report. Even though the U.S. approved the standards and signed onto them, NHTSA simply never implemented them.
Why not, you might be wondering? Well, get ready for some regulatory bloviating. “According to NHTSA officials,” the GAO report says, “implementation of the standard would require NHTSA to initiate a regulatory proceeding. Although the United States formally agreed to the standard more than 10 years ago, NHTSA officials told us that the rulemaking initiative is classified as a long-term action and that there is no timeline for such a rulemaking to implement pedestrian crash mitigation requirements.”
The GAO report makes abundantly clear all of this was within NHTSA’s control. The agency put out a request for comments in 2015 in advance of possibly making that new rule—what exactly the delay was between 2008 and 2015 is not clear—but it never responded to the comments or followed up in any way.
The slow walk from 2008 to 2016 is hard to understand in its own right, but it seems the administration change hasn't helped matters since. NHTSA officials told the GAO staff that “administration priorities have shifted since publication of the 2015 Request for Comments” and that “after the administration changed,” specifications for a rule change were withdrawn from the Federal Register, preventing further public comment.
The upshot to all this is NHTSA knows more pedestrians are dying but, despite being the regulatory agency with “highway traffic safety” in its name, refuses to do anything about it.
“Although NHTSA has recognized that the increase in pedestrian fatalities presents a risk to the safety of the nation’s roadways,” the GAO report summarizes, “it is not well positioned to address this risk through NCAP because NHTSA does not have a clear process for making changes to the program.”
In other words, NHTSA is not well positioned to fix the problem it’s tasked with solving because it hasn’t done any work towards solving the problem.
Good luck out there, everyone.