Drivers of boxy SUVs and pickup trucks are more likely to kill pedestrians, study finds

Big trucks and SUVs, especially those with flat front ends, aren’t just more intimidating to look at, they are genuinely deadlier for pedestrians, according to new research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Researchers at the institute looked at records of almost 18,000 incidents in which vehicles struck pedestrians. They found that vehicles with grille areas that were 40 inches tall or higher are 45% more likely to kill a pedestrian they might hit.

Tall front ends are common among full-size trucks and SUVs but they aren’t exclusive to very big vehicles. The Jeep Renegade, a compact SUV, also has a boxy front-end with the front edge of its hood more than 40 inches off the ground, according to the study.

Even when the hood isn’t that high, a boxy front-end — with a grille that’s nearly vertical and a hood that goes almost straight out from the windshield — is more likely to cause death or serious injury to a pedestrian. In general, vehicles with box-shaped front ends, even when they’re only medium height, are roughly 26% more likely to kill a pedestrian, according to the IIHS.

Pedestrian fatalities have increased more than 80% since 2009, according to the IIHS. In 2021, almost 7,400 people were struck and killed by vehicles. While factors such as speeding and poor road design contribute to the problem, IIHS said, safety experts have also pointed to the increased popularity of big trucks and SUVs.

While especially tall, boxy front end designs have become popular among full-size trucks, the aggressive design serves no function.

“Manufacturers can make vehicles less dangerous to pedestrians by lowering the front end of the hood and angling the grille and hood to create a sloped profile,” IIHS Senior Research Transportation Engineer Wen Hu said in a statement. “There’s no functional benefit to these massive, blocky fronts.”

Vehicles with front ends over 35 inches high, especially those with front ends that don’t slope gently downwards, were more likely to cause severe head, torso and hip injuries, according to the IIHS report. Shorter pedestrians are especially at risk, the Institute said.

Researchers statistically controlled for factors that might alter the risk of injury, such as the speed limit in the area the impact occurred, as well as the age and sex of the person who was struck.

Researchers excluded vehicles that have automatic braking with pedestrian detection, a technology that’s become increasingly common and which has been shown to reduce pedestrian injuries. The federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed making that technology mandatory.

“Our light-duty pickups and full-size SUVs come standard with front pedestrian braking and [high-definition] surround vision camera systems are available or standard on most trim levels,” General Motors said in a statement.

Ford pointed out in a statement that automatic braking with pedestrian detection is standard on all almost all of its new vehicles, including F-series pickups. The company offers other emergency braking systems as well, it said, to prevent low-speed impacts.

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The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an auto industry group that represents many major automakers in the US, said in a statement that its members have been making “significant investments” to improve pedestrian safety.

NHTSA has also proposed adding pedestrian safety tests to its regimen of crash tests and other safety measurements for new vehicles.

But automakers should also consider pedestrian safety in the design of their vehicles, IIHS president David Harkey said in a statement.

“It’s clear that the increasing size of the vehicles in the U.S. fleet is costing pedestrians their lives,” he said. “We encourage automakers to consider these findings and take a hard look at the height and shape of their SUVs and pickups.”

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