Updated Apr 19, 2023 - Health

Why SUVs are especially dangerous for bicyclists

Data: Fatality Analysis Reporting System, NHTSA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Bicyclists suffer more severe injuries when they're struck by SUVs than when they're hit by cars because the point of impact is higher, a new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study shows.

Why it matters: Fatal bicycle crash rates have risen dramatically over the past decade, and researchers attribute the trend to the growing number of large SUVs and pickups on U.S. roads.

  • While design changes have made SUVs less dangerous to other vehicles, their tall front ends still pose an increased risk to pedestrians and bicyclists.

By the numbers: 932 bicyclists and 6,516 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roads in 2020 — up 48% and 51%, respectively, since 2010, according to federal data.

  • Pedestrians comprised about 17% of crash deaths, and bicyclists made up an additional 2%.

Driving the news: IIHS examined detailed data from 71 Michigan crashes involving vehicles and bicycles compiled by the International Center for Automotive Medicine's Pedestrian Consortium.

  • The goal was to compare the severity of injuries inflicted by cars versus SUVs.

What they found: Injuries to the lower extremities were common in all crashes, but head injuries were dramatically more prevalent in those involving SUVs.

  • Ground-impact injuries — a frequent cause of head trauma — were more than twice as common in SUV crashes than those involving cars.

What they're saying: "SUVs tend to knock riders down, where they can also be run over, rather than vaulting them onto the hood of the vehicle," said Sam Monfort, the study's lead author.

  • That's because the higher front end of an SUV strikes cyclists above their center of gravity, throwing them more violently to the ground.
  • "It's not where they are struck, it's where the energy directs them after contact," Monfort tells Axios.

Of note: When an SUV strikes a pedestrian, it's the direct impact to the pelvis or chest that makes it more dangerous than being hit by a car, IIHS found in an earlier study.

What to watch: As part of the 2021 infrastructure bill, Congress instructed the Transportation Department to establish higher standards for vehicle safety technology, including emergency braking systems and other crash avoidance technologies.

  • Safety advocates argue such technologies should be standard in all vehicles, not just luxury models, and should work better at night.
  • "With bicyclists out enjoying warmer weather conditions, taking a bike ride must not turn into a death sentence," said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
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