SUVs, pickups, vans and minivans are substantially more likely than cars to hit pedestrians when making turns, suggesting that these larger vehicles may not afford drivers as clear a view of people crossing the road, a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows.
“We already know that larger vehicles cause more severe injuries when they strike pedestrians,” says IIHS Vice President of Research Jessica Cicchino, one of the study’s authors. “The link between these vehicle types and certain common pedestrian crashes points to another way that the increase in SUVs on the roads might be changing the crash picture.”
Pedestrian crash deaths have increased nearly every year since hitting a low point in 2009, rising 59 percent to top 6,500 fatalities in 2020, the latest year for which data are available. The same year, another 54,700 pedestrians were injured in motor vehicle crashes. One suspected factor is the growing prevalence of larger vehicles.
Where vehicle type is concerned, earlier research has shown that SUVs and pickups — which are more widespread than ever in the U.S. fleet — are more lethal to pedestrians than cars. The new IIHS paper shows that certain types of pedestrian crashes — including those that occur while the vehicle is turning — are more likely to occur with SUVs, pickups, vans and minivans.
The researchers studied the most common types of single-vehicle, single-pedestrian crashes at or near intersections and at other locations. They then examined how involvement in these crashes varied for three larger vehicle types compared with cars.
At intersections, the odds that a crash that killed a crossing pedestrian involved a left turn by the vehicle versus no turn were about twice as high for SUVs, nearly 3 times as high for vans and minivans and nearly 4 times as high for pickups as they were for cars. The odds that a crash that killed a crossing pedestrian involved a right turn by the vehicle were also 89 percent higher for pickups and 63 percent higher for SUVs than for cars. Such turning crashes accounted for more than 900 of around 5,800 fatal pedestrian crashes at or near U.S. intersections during 2014-18.
“It’s possible that the size, shape or location of the A-pillars that support the roof on either side of the windshield could make it harder for drivers of these larger vehicles to see crossing pedestrians when they are turning,” says IIHS Senior Transportation Engineer Wen Hu.
At other locations, SUVs and pickups were associated with 51 percent and 25 percent greater odds than cars of killing a pedestrian walking or running along the road versus a fatal straight-on crash with a crossing pedestrian. The fact that larger vehicles and walking-along-the-road crashes are both more common in rural areas might have contributed to those heightened odds, though the researchers considered whether the crash occurred in a rural area and other environmental factors in their analysis. Such incidents accounted for around 2,500 out of some 14,000 U.S. fatal pedestrian crashes that did not involve intersections.
More research will be needed to understand the role of visibility in these crashes. Earlier studies have shown that A-pillars — the struts connecting the roof to the vehicle’s body on either side of the windshield — can create blind spots that can make it difficult for drivers to see pedestrians and that these blind spots grow larger as A-pillars become wider.
While their heavier weight means that larger passenger vehicles need stronger pillars to protect occupants in rollover crashes, a systematic assessment of A-pillar design by vehicle type has not been conducted. Other design elements of larger vehicles could also impede drivers’ ability to see pedestrians, such as their high ride heights and long front ends.
Along with the federal database of fatal crashes, the researchers examined police-reported pedestrian crashes of all severities from North Carolina during 2010-18. They found similar, though less dramatic results in this dataset, which includes less severe crashes.
At or near intersections, pickups were 42 percent more likely and SUVs were 23 percent more likely than cars to hit pedestrians when turning left. There was no significant difference in the odds of a right-turn crash for the different types of vehicles. Turning crashes accounted for about 2,070 of 5,500 crashes that occurred at or near intersections in North Carolina over the study period.
Away from intersections, pickups were 80 percent and SUVs were 61 percent more likely than cars to hit a pedestrian walking or running along the road. Minivans and vans were 45 percent more likely than cars to be involved in such crashes — which accounted for about 1,650 of North Carolina’s approximately 7,600 nonintersection crashes.
Turning crashes were the most common type among the police-reported intersection crashes in North Carolina, while crashes in which the vehicle was continuing straight made up a majority of the fatal intersection crashes nationwide. That’s probably because drivers have to slow down to make a turn, so the impact is less likely to be deadly.
“Improving vehicle design, along with addressing road infrastructure and vehicle speeds, can play an important part in reducing pedestrian crashes and fatalities,” Hu says. “Our findings suggest that looking at the problem through the lens of vehicle type could also be productive.”
Some general vehicle-design solutions that have already shown promise include AEB systems that can detect and avoid pedestrians or reduce impact speed; hood airbags; hoods that automatically pop up on impact; and more sloped front ends. The latest IIHS findings warrant a closer look at how the designs of larger vehicles affect driver visibility.