Pedestrians are dying on American roads in greater numbers every year, and government regulators aren’t doing enough to stop it, according to a new report on pedestrian safety from the Government Accountability Office. Its chilling title is “NHTSA Needs to Decide Whether to Include Pedestrian Safety Tests in Its New Car Assessment Program.”
We’ve been covering the rise in pedestrian deaths due to the increasing size of America’s fleet for a while now. In 2018, 6,283 pedestrians were killed; a 3.4 percent increase from the previous year. It’s also the highest that number has been since 1990. Cyclist fatalities have increased by 6.3 percent.
The problem is only getting worse. In 2019, light trucks (which includes SUVs) made up 72 percent of the market, according to Automotive News. That’s up from 57 percent just five years ago. Our vehicles are larger, heavier and there are more distractions than ever before. It’s a pretty straight forward problem, and one that the National Highway Traffic Administration has been aware of for over a decade, while doing little to address it. The main issue is how NHTSA tests cars, according to some guy at Vice whose name escapes me at the moment:
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.
Actions NHTSA could take (but doesn’t) include crash testing for pedestrian safety and requiring automakers to design bumpers and hoods to absorb pedestrian impacts. Bumper and hood absorption might also be a moot point, however, as your average-sized human being won’t be able to clear the grill of some of the largest trucks and SUVs on the road. In 2015 NHTSA asked for comments on possible new rules, and then promptly did nothing with them. Administration change hasn’t helped matters either:
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.
So it is entirely within NHTSA’s power to take steps to protect pedestrians, but after more than 10 years of inaction, it seems basic protections will continue to be ignored until political will or public outcry becomes apparent. No one should hold their breath for either.
Another option, as always, is to temper Americans’ desire for huge vehicles with a high tax on fuel. Cars always shrink when fuel prices skyrocket. Automakers even had a name for the process of shrinking the land yachts of the 1970s after the oil crisis. They called it downsizing. But with gas prices down to historic levels, that seems even less likely than NHTSA actually testing cars for pedestrian safety.