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Pedestrian Protection: Bridging the Gap Between Vehicle Design and Road Safety



On September 13, 2021, tragedy struck in Washington, DC, when five-year-old Allie Hart was fatally hit by a transit van while riding her bike on a pedestrian crossing near her home. For her mother, Jessica Hart, the world crumbled, yet the outside world remained unchanged, failing to implement measures to protect vulnerable road users like Allie.

Jessica Hart channeled her grief into advocacy, becoming a member of the campaign group DC Families for Safe Streets. This organization pushes for better-designed streets, more attentive drivers, and safer vehicles. Vulnerable road users (VRUs), including pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists, represent the majority of people killed by cars globally. Despite existing technology that can enhance their safety, these features are not always integrated into new vehicles due to cost considerations.

Alex Thompson, a safety engineer at Thatcham Research, a nonprofit automotive risk intelligence company, explores the balance between safety features and affordability. As technology matures, costs tend to decrease, making advanced safety features more accessible. Flexible materials and innovative designs, like incorporating foam padding under bumpers, absorb impact energy, enhancing pedestrian safety.

However, challenges persist, especially concerning the safety of VRUs. Windscreen pillars (A-pillars) remain a danger zone for cyclists and pedestrians. Car manufacturers struggle to integrate safety measures in these areas effectively. Some innovations, such as pedestrian airbags introduced by Volvo, have been slow to be implemented across various models.

Passive safety features, like pop-up bonnets, mitigate the impact of collisions but do not prevent accidents. Preventive technologies like automatic/autonomous emergency braking (AEB) have become commonplace in new cars in Europe. AEB systems, utilizing lidar and radar, detect pedestrians and other VRUs, applying brakes automatically to prevent collisions. In addition, intelligent speed assistance (ISA) systems, mandated in the EU, warn of high speeds or automatically reduce speeds, reducing the severity of impacts.

Despite these advancements, the rising popularity of larger vehicles like SUVs raises concerns for pedestrian safety. These vehicles, heavier and with limited visibility, pose higher risks to people on the street. Some cities have attempted to deter SUV usage by imposing higher fees for parking or registration.

In the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is considering changes to its New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) to include pedestrian protection ratings, marking a significant step in prioritizing pedestrian safety in vehicle regulations. Additionally, the NHTSA is contemplating a safety rule for pedestrian automatic emergency braking, a measure that could potentially save hundreds of lives annually.

The need to bridge the gap between existing safety technologies and their widespread implementation remains crucial. As advancements continue, making these features more affordable and standardized is key to ensuring the safety of all road users, especially the vulnerable ones like Allie Hart.

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