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Report finds 1.2-million car crashes, 39,000 pedestrian crashes a year could be avoided with this technology

Consumer Reports News: March 31, 2011 04:55 PM

Cars keep getting safer, with the help of technologies such as air bags, antilock brakes, and electronic stability control. Also, with increasingly sophisticated structures, technology has focused on protecting people inside of cars. However, now pedestrian safety is being looked at like never before. New research shows that there are significant numbers of pedestrian deaths that may be avoidable via high-tech safety systems, such as forward collision warning, which are making their way to showrooms.

In 2009, over 4,000 pedestrians were killed, which makes up 12 percent of the total fatal crashes. While that number is down, there is still more work to be done. A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) looked at crash avoidance technologies and how they can help reduce pedestrian crashes.

Most pedestrian accidents involve a person crossing a roadway and a vehicle traveling straight with no obstructions. Typically, no braking is reported. And while most accidents occur during the daytime, the fatal ones often happen at night. Crash avoidance technology, such as forward collision warning, alerts the driver with a sound before a potential crash with another vehicle can occur. If the driver doesn’t respond, the vehicle automatically applies the brakes. This type of technology is available on 19 models currently on the market, but a new type of system called “pedestrian detection” goes one step further. Using radar, it can help detect people, as well as cars. The new Volvo S60 is the first model to offer such a system. (When shopping for an S60 to test, we found the option hard to find.)

IIHS estimates about 1.2 million crashes including 879 deaths could be prevented if all vehicles had forward collision warning per year. Pedestrian detection systems could prevent an additional 39,000 crashes and nearly 3,000 fatal ones.

To help guide automakers in their development of these systems, the Institute looked at crash data from 2005-2009 and found that most pedestrian crashes involved a single vehicle and were front crashes. Three-quarters of deaths were from people crossing traffic. In these cases, drivers hit the brakes only 13 percent of the time in fatal and non-fatal crashes.

Pedestrian detection systems can help to be an extra set of eyes, but these systems need to help detect when someone is going to move into the vehicle path, not when they are already in harm’s way.

In Europe, as of last September, there are new requirements and crash tests to assess pedestrian risk. Hence, automakers are adjusting the front of vehicles by putting more room between the hood and engine, raising hoods higher upon impact, adding hood air bags, and designing softer bumpers.

In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) looked at these types of requirements, but the changes were abandoned in the late 1990's. However, we may see Europe’s changes in the future on our shores if these regulations become a global standard in the future.

Technology or not, the best way to avoid pedestrian accidents is to be diligent and pay attention to the road. These accidents are nearly all avoidable and distractions behind the wheel could be one reason for the low percent of people who brake before they hit someone in their path. They may simply not be looking. Likewise, pedestrians need to be predictable and visible, following safety laws and applying common sense to minimize their risks.

Ultimately, these hazard-detecting features could enhance vehicle safety, but to be effective, they must be combined with good driving (and pedestrian traffic-crossing) behavior.

For more on vehicle safety, see our guide to car safety.

Liza Barth

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