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IIHS: Explosion of e-commerce calls for safety features that deliver

Equipping the light vans that fulfill America’s online orders with four safety features could prevent or mitigate close to 4 out of 10 fatal crashes involving such vehicles, a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows

Equipping the light vans that fulfill America’s online orders with four safety features could prevent or mitigate close to 4 out of 10 fatal crashes involving such vehicles, a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows.

Using federal crash data from 2016 to 2021, IIHS researchers estimated that equipping every light van on the road with front crash prevention, lane departure prevention, blind spot detection and intelligent speed assistance (ISA) could address 26% of all police-reported crashes, 22% of injury crashes and 37% of fatal crashes involving such vehicles.

“Equipping delivery vans with these technologies would deliver big safety benefits,” IIHS David Harkey said. “These vehicles are growing rapidly in number and are more dangerous to other road users because of their large size.”

E-commerce was already booming in 2020, when the pandemic put home delivery into overdrive, prompting a 43% increase in sales and adding thousands of light vans to the U.S. fleet. About 500,000 light vans — models with a gross vehicle weight rating below 10,000 pounds such as the Ford Transit, Ram ProMaster and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter — are sold every year in the U.S., according to data gathered by Wards Intelligence.

Manufacturers have committed to equipping newer models with front crash prevention. But the increasing prevalence of these vans remains a safety concern. Larger vehicles are more likely to cause injuries in crashes with smaller vehicles because of their greater mass. They’re also more likely than passenger cars to kill or seriously injure pedestrians, probably because their ride height and the shape of their front ends means they strike higher on the pedestrian’s body. Pedestrian fatalities have increased 83% since their low point in 2009, while bicyclist fatalities have risen 75% over approximately the same period.

For the study on the potential benefits of equipping light vans with advanced safety features, IIHS researchers sifted through police-reported crashes, injury crashes and fatal crashes, looking for those that could be addressed by each feature — for example, rear-end, pedestrian, and bicyclist crashes for front crash prevention and side-swipe crashes for blind spot detection.

ISA, a newer and lesser-known feature, uses a camera or GPS system to identify the speed limit and either warn the driver to slow down or limit power to the engine to keep the vehicle within the legal limit. For this feature, the researchers counted crashes in which law enforcement identified a light van as speeding.

Light vans were involved in an average of 935,371 police-reported crashes, 98,110 injury crashes and 3,637 fatal crashes each year of the study period. Front crash prevention applied to the largest number of these crashes, 17% of the total and about a fifth of the fatal incidents. Lane departure prevention applied to 2% of crashes overall and 11% of fatal crashes. Blind spot detection applied to 4% of the total crashes but few fatal ones, and ISA applied to 4% of all crash involvements and 10% of the fatal crashes.

Notably, those percentages represent crashes that could be prevented or mitigated if every light van on the road was equipped with the features and if the features worked perfectly all the time. In reality, none of the features is completely foolproof. In addition, even with a serious push to install them in all new vehicles, it will be decades before all the older, unequipped vans disappear from the fleet, though aftermarket add-ons could accelerate adoption.

IIHS research shows that crash avoidance features are already highly effective, and further advancements promise to make them work better. An earlier IIHS study showed that front crash prevention systems with automatic emergency braking (AEB) reduce police-reported rear-end crashes by half for passenger vehicles, for example. For light vans, similar effectiveness would mean eliminating some 77,000 crashes per year. Pedestrian AEB, which IIHS research shows cuts pedestrian crash risk by 27%, could eliminate 1,200 light van crashes with pedestrians.

As the pedestrian numbers show, the benefits would extend beyond delivery companies and their drivers. In more than 60% of the injury crashes and more than half of the fatal crashes involving a light van, an occupant of another vehicle or another road user was injured or killed.

Though the researchers counted crashes and therefore didn’t consider belt use, it’s possible that fewer delivery van drivers wear their seat belts consistently than the nationally observed 92% of all drivers, since delivery drivers must stop and get out frequently as part of their job. That might mean they could benefit even more than the general public from louder, more persistent seat belt reminders.

Driver monitoring systems designed to prevent distracted driving could also be beneficial. However, the study did not evaluate the potential for this technology because distraction is underreported in crash data.

While most new passenger cars and SUVs come equipped with AEB and at least offer lane departure prevention and blind spot detection as options, the features are comparatively rare on light vans. ISA that makes it difficult or impossible for drivers to speed, as opposed to providing a visual warning, is not widely available, regardless of vehicle type.

“The potential benefits of these technologies are simply too big to ignore,” Harkey said. “Manufacturers should make them standard equipment as soon as possible, and fleet owners should explore aftermarket products for their current delivery vans.”


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