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Pedestrians are dying while vehicle safety tech lags

A graphic of a car moving into a crosswalk.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The number of U.S. traffic fatalities remains stubbornly flat, while deaths among pedestrians and bicyclists are rising, despite available crash avoidance technology that could help.

The big picture: In a largely self-regulated industry, it's up to carmakers to decide which safety features to install in their cars, leaving potentially life-saving technology on the shelf. As they work to perfect self-driving cars, they must weigh valid safety concerns against whether there is a moral imperative to deploy autonomous vehicle technology faster if it will help save lives.

Driving the news: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this week estimated 36,750 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2018, a slight 1% decline compared to 2017.

  • But preliminary figures also showed a sharp rise in deaths among pedestrians (4%) and bicyclists (10%).
  • NHTSA said it's too soon to speculate on why this is happening, but one obvious guess is the role of distracted driving and walking. (The agency has been investigating this possibility but the challenge is getting people to admit they were distracted.)
  • Pedestrian deaths are a big concern in large U.S. cities like New York, where people on foot accounted for 46% of the city's 207 traffic deaths in 2017, per Reuters.

What's needed: Crash avoidance technologies like automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection systems could help save lives, but automakers aren't required to install them.

  • The systems, which help prevent crashes or reduce their severity, use a combination of sensors such as radar, cameras or lasers to warn the driver of an imminent collision and apply the brakes if the driver doesn't react quickly enough.
  • 20 auto manufacturers volunteered in 2016 to equip virtually all new cars and trucks with a low-speed emergency braking system by Sept. 1, 2022, arguing it was faster than waiting for a federal law.
  • But there is no penalty for missing that target, and no performance standards to ensure their systems are effective.
  • As of March, about half of vehicles produced between September 2017 and August 2018 were equipped with such systems, but some carmakers, including the Detroit Three, were way behind, Consumer Reports noted.

Safety advocates fault the federal government for being too lax.

"Our crash rating system hasn't been updated since 2010. They hand out 4- and 5-star ratings as if they are candy on Halloween."
— Jason Levine, executive director, Center for Auto Safety
  • In Europe, manufacturers must include the latest life-saving technologies like AEB to earn top safety ratings, Levine noted. That is not the case in the U.S., where the rules were written long before such technologies existed.
  • Some companies, including Toyota and Honda, make such features standard, even on entry-level vehicles, but others limit them to high-end luxury models.
  • "Per usual, the lower you are in the economic spectrum, the more dangerous driving is for you," says Levine.

What to watch: If the cars aren't making pedestrians safer, at least the infrastructure is in some places.

  • Seattle, for example, is re-timing walk signals to give pedestrians a few seconds' head start before turning traffic gets a green light.

Go deeper: Regulating the humans behind the wheels of autonomous vehicles