A pedestrian crossing the street as a car approaches.

Most small SUVs with pedestrian detection systems are effective in reducing the risk of crashes, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found from the first results of its new testing.

This IIHS testing represents the first data suggesting the effectiveness of these new systems, which are becoming increasingly available in new vehicles each year.

IIHS tested 11 systems from 2018-2019 models that offer automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection systems, and nine of them earned the two highest ratings of Advanced or Superior.

These systems act to slow vehicles once a pedestrian is detected, and that slowing is crucial, says David Aylor, IIHS manager of active safety testing.

“The more speed you’re able to scrub off, the more likely a pedestrian is to survive the impact,” Aylor says. Because vehicles can react faster than drivers can, “the technology is always paying attention to the road and never gets distracted or drowsy.”  

The number of pedestrians fatally hit by vehicles in the U.S. has been increasing at an alarming rate. In 2009 there were 4,109 such deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By 2017 it was 5,977, a 45 percent increase.

Because of that increase, CR now gives extra credit to the Overall Score for models that have a standard city-speed AEB system with pedestrian detection. CR wants the industry to make this valuable feature more widely available.

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In the IIHS testing, the 2018 Honda CR-V, 2019 Subaru Forester, 2019 Toyota RAV4, and 2019 Volvo XC40 had systems that were rated Superior. The systems in the 2019 Chevrolet Equinox, 2018 Hyundai Kona, 2019 Kia Sportage, 2018 Mazda CX-5, and 2019 Nissan Rogue each received an Advanced rating. The Mitsubishi Outlander scored a Basic rating for its performance, which lagged the other competitors. The BMW X1 received no credit in the testing because the system failed to brake in one scenario and had minimal speed reductions or none at all in the other tests.

To get a Superior or an Advanced rating from IIHS, a vehicle must demonstrate significant reductions in speed in three components of the test, which simulates an adult or child in the path of an oncoming vehicle. These top performing SUVs either avoided or almost avoided striking pedestrian dummies used in the testing at the IIHS facility in Ruckersville, Va.

“The expectation is that these detection systems will make pedestrians safer, but the IIHS testing demonstrates that some of these systems may prove to be more effective—or handle certain scenarios better—than others,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center.

How the Tested Vehicles Fared

The ratings detail how well a vehicle performs in three crash scenarios. In the first, a vehicle must react to an adult pedestrian who enters the roadway from the right side and steps into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

The second scenario simulates a child darting into the street from behind two parked vehicles. And the third test—which the IIHS says is the most challenging—imitates an adult walking in the vehicle’s travel lane but at the edge of the road, with his or her back turned to the vehicle.

Each test vehicle repeats the three components of the evaluations five times on dry pavement. The tests are conducted at 12 and 25 mph in the first and second scenarios, and at 25 and 37 mph in the third one. Vehicles are scored according to their average speed reductions in each test run.

“The best possible outcome is to avoid hitting a pedestrian altogether,” Aylor says.

The Forester and RAV4 avoided hitting the dummies in the first two tests. The XC40 avoided the adult in the first test and the child in the 12-mph part of the second test.

The Outlander was able to reduce its speed by about 11 mph in the first (12 mph) child scenario and by about 19 mph in the 25-mph segment of the third evaluation. But it managed minimal speed reductions in the other tests.

A spokesman for Mitsubishi Motors North America told CR “we’re proud of the Mitsubishi Outlander’s top-level 'Superior' front-crash prevention." He added that the manufacturer is "always working to improve our vehicles’ across-the-board crash and crash-prevention systems and processes, and will study the results of this round of testing as we develop new vehicles and systems.”

The BMW X1 didn’t brake at all in the high-speed portion of the back-to-driver adult test, and had minimal or no speed reductions in the other two tests.

When reached for comment, a BMW spokesman told us "BMW was particularly disappointed with the results of the 2018 BMW X1 tested." He also noted that "the upper threshold for the AEB system on the X1 is 60km/h or 37.5 mph as indicated on the vehicle speedometer. Given that BMW speedometers are calibrated conservatively and that the IIHS test was performed at exactly 37 mph, it may be that IIHS tested the system above the designed threshold."

CR Incorporates Pedestrian Detection into Vehicle Ratings

Since 2016 Consumer Reports has given credit to vehicles that offer effective safety systems as standard equipment. As these systems evolve, so do our scoring and ratings. As a result, CR no longer gives models credit for having city-speed AEB systems unless they also include pedestrian detection. This is because pedestrians are most often struck on roadways with speed limits below 40 mph. Models with standard AEB systems that work at highway speeds get extra credit as well.

“As more real-world data becomes available on the effectiveness of advanced safety systems, CR will continue to evolve our ratings to include them,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.

According to the IIHS, about two-thirds of automatic emergency braking systems available on 2019 models have a pedestrian detection component.

Why Deaths Are Rising

As Consumer Reports found in our report on making the world safer for pedestrians, a number of factors contribute to the increase in pedestrian—and driver—fatalities. For example, both drivers and walkers can be distracted by smartphones and other technology. Alcohol also plays a factor.