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Vehicle heights of SUVs, trucks linked to pedestrian deaths

On Long Island, fatal pedestrian crashes caused by SUVs and pickups have increased from 2016 to 2021, while those caused by cars have shrunk. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

For three-plus decades, a West Hempstead neighborhood was Cathy Leary’s stamping grounds. The grandmother of six would slip on her signature reflective vest and walk the same tree-lined blocks for an hour each morning.

But on Oct. 24 at 6:47 a.m., Leary’s routine stroll came to an abrupt end when a sport utility vehicle slammed into her, killing her less than a quarter mile from her home.

“She was lit up like a Christmas tree and she was still run over,” her daughter, Kathleen Boyle, said. “It’s just the most horrible experience anyone could go through.”

Leary, 75, sustained broken ribs, punctured lungs and a broken neck — injuries medical experts said are consistent with those caused by larger vehicles, such as SUVs and pickups.

A study published last month in the journal Economics of Transportation links the hood height of vehicles with crashes, finding that taller front ends associated with many SUVs and pickups could be contributing to a nationwide increase in pedestrian deaths. The findings bolster previous studies that found while bigger vehicles protect occupants, trucks and SUVs — which represented nearly 75% of new vehicles sold in the United States last year — are risky for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.

In 2022, more than 7,500 pedestrians were killed across the country, the highest toll since 1981 and an increase of 75% since 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. Pedestrian deaths have risen on Long Island, to 72 in 2022 compared with 65 in 2018, according to a state database.

On Long Island, fatal pedestrian crashes caused by SUVs and pickups have increased, while those caused by cars have shrunk, according to data from the NHTSA. Thirty pedestrians were killed by SUVs in 2021, according to the latest information available, compared with 21 in 2016. Meanwhile, 18 pedestrians were killed by passenger cars in 2021 versus 30 in 2016.

In a phone interview, the study's author, Justin Tyndall, assistant professor of Economics at University of Hawaii at Mānoa, called the surge in fatalities a “public health crisis” and a leading cause of death among otherwise healthy people.

To better understand the issue, Tyndall measured front-end hood heights against pedestrian crash data, finding that hoods taller than 1.25 meters — just over 4 feet — are more likely to lead to death. The biggest factor contributing to whether a pedestrian survives is not the vehicle’s weight but the height of the hood, Tyndall said. In the study, he further estimates that just a 10-centimeter rise, or 3.9 inches, in the vehicle’s front-end height results in a 22% increase in fatality risk.

According to the study, 95% of cars have a front end lower than 1.25 meters, while only 30% of light trucks,  which includes SUVs, do. Popular pickups like the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado have an average front end height of 1.39 meters, which is approximately 4 feet, 5 inches.

Regulatory changes implemented to restrict the height of the front end of vehicles to 1.25 meters could save 509 lives annually, Tyndall said. Tyndall acknowledged in the study that any policy change is unlikely, despite other countries already having such design specifications.

Boyle said her mother, an Elvis Presley fan, was living her self-termed “jubilee year,” capped by a trip to Graceland in Memphis after turning 75 last summer and was a few feet off the curb when she was struck by a 2019 Hyundai SUV.

“My mother died on impact … she didn’t even know what was coming,” Boyle added. “It was early morning, so the sun was rising. It wasn’t pitch black.”

Boyle said she would support any front-end height restrictions that give pedestrians a "fighting chance to survive.”

The driver involved in the crash was not charged. 

Using NHTSA crash data from 2016 to 2021, Tyndall analyzed 3,400 crashes involving one car and one pedestrian. During those years, the average size of vehicles striking pedestrians rose. The median front-end height of vehicles striking pedestrians increased 5%, the vehicle’s weight 3% and the likelihood it was a light truck 11%.

Light trucks are a class of vehicles that include SUVs, pickups and vans, according to the study.

Tyndall also found that while the vehicle’s weight is factored into the physics of a crash, it is not as important as the front-end design.

The study says higher front ends may be particularly dangerous for pedestrians because the initial strikes are “more likely to be in the torso or head, rather than the legs.” Pedestrians are also likelier to wind up underneath larger vehicles than on the hood.

Wen Hu, a transportation engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Virginia, led a similar study last year that found vehicles with higher and more vertical front ends posed the greatest danger to pedestrians. Hood heights between 30 and 40 inches with a blunt, or more vertical, front end pose a greater risk to people walking. 

“We hope that more research can be done and the front end geometry could be considered in future new vehicle safety evaluations,” Hu said.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the last three decades have seen the average passenger vehicle grow 4 inches wider, 10 inches longer, 8 inches higher and 1,000 pounds bulkier.

Children are particularly vulnerable to bigger vehicles. The study published last month found higher front-end designs increase the chances a child walking will die by 81%, roughly four times that of adults. A 10-centimeter increase in front-end height also increases the risk of death for people over 65 by 31%.

The death rate for a pedestrian hit by a vehicle jumps from 9.1% when it's a car to 11.9% when it’s a pickup and 12.4% when it’s a full-size SUV, according to the study.

Cynthia Brown, director of the New York Coalition for Transportation Safety, based in Westbury, said these bigger vehicles dominating roads on Long Island are a real threat. 

“Just look at the size of these pickup trucks: You really don’t have a chance," she said. "So, I try to tell people no matter whether you think you have the right of way, if you’re not aware you’re out of luck. You have to walk defensively.”

Dr. Richard Bagdonas, a trauma surgeon at Good Samaritan University Hospital in West Islip, said during his three-decade career he has seen a spike in traffic injuries, noting as the number of higher front-end vehicles has grown, so have pedestrian fatalities.

“If you get your principal impact directly on your torso, it’s a target-rich environment,” he said, noting the number of vital organs there. 

Bagdonas said while most vehicles have safety features including air bags, crumple zones and restraints to protect occupants, there are fewer features designed to protect pedestrians.

“Prevention is much better than the treatment,” Bagdonas said.

“If there was some similar crumple zone that would protect pedestrians, that would be helpful,” he said, adding that automatic braking and other technology could help prevent and lessen impact.

With Arielle Martinez

For three-plus decades, a West Hempstead neighborhood was Cathy Leary’s stamping grounds. The grandmother of six would slip on her signature reflective vest and walk the same tree-lined blocks for an hour each morning.

But on Oct. 24 at 6:47 a.m., Leary’s routine stroll came to an abrupt end when a sport utility vehicle slammed into her, killing her less than a quarter mile from her home.

“She was lit up like a Christmas tree and she was still run over,” her daughter, Kathleen Boyle, said. “It’s just the most horrible experience anyone could go through.”

Leary, 75, sustained broken ribs, punctured lungs and a broken neck — injuries medical experts said are consistent with those caused by larger vehicles, such as SUVs and pickups.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A recent study found vehicle front-end designs like those on many SUVs and pickups are deadlier for pedestrians.

  • On Long Island, the number of light trucks and SUVs involved in deadly pedestrian crashes has grown.

  • Adopting a 1.25-meter front-end limit — just over 4 feet — would save 509 pedestrians nationwide yearly, according to the study.

A study published last month in the journal Economics of Transportation links the hood height of vehicles with crashes, finding that taller front ends associated with many SUVs and pickups could be contributing to a nationwide increase in pedestrian deaths. The findings bolster previous studies that found while bigger vehicles protect occupants, trucks and SUVs — which represented nearly 75% of new vehicles sold in the United States last year — are risky for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.

In 2022, more than 7,500 pedestrians were killed across the country, the highest toll since 1981 and an increase of 75% since 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. Pedestrian deaths have risen on Long Island, to 72 in 2022 compared with 65 in 2018, according to a state database.

On Long Island, fatal pedestrian crashes caused by SUVs and pickups have increased, while those caused by cars have shrunk, according to data from the NHTSA. Thirty pedestrians were killed by SUVs in 2021, according to the latest information available, compared with 21 in 2016. Meanwhile, 18 pedestrians were killed by passenger cars in 2021 versus 30 in 2016.

In a phone interview, the study's author, Justin Tyndall, assistant professor of Economics at University of Hawaii at Mānoa, called the surge in fatalities a “public health crisis” and a leading cause of death among otherwise healthy people.

Hood heights and crash data

To better understand the issue, Tyndall measured front-end hood heights against pedestrian crash data, finding that hoods taller than 1.25 meters — just over 4 feet — are more likely to lead to death. The biggest factor contributing to whether a pedestrian survives is not the vehicle’s weight but the height of the hood, Tyndall said. In the study, he further estimates that just a 10-centimeter rise, or 3.9 inches, in the vehicle’s front-end height results in a 22% increase in fatality risk.

According to the study, 95% of cars have a front end lower than 1.25 meters, while only 30% of light trucks,  which includes SUVs, do. Popular pickups like the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado have an average front end height of 1.39 meters, which is approximately 4 feet, 5 inches.

Children are particularly vulnerable to bigger vehicles, according to a...

Children are particularly vulnerable to bigger vehicles, according to a study published last month. Credit: Barry Sloan

Regulatory changes implemented to restrict the height of the front end of vehicles to 1.25 meters could save 509 lives annually, Tyndall said. Tyndall acknowledged in the study that any policy change is unlikely, despite other countries already having such design specifications.

Boyle said her mother, an Elvis Presley fan, was living her self-termed “jubilee year,” capped by a trip to Graceland in Memphis after turning 75 last summer and was a few feet off the curb when she was struck by a 2019 Hyundai SUV.

“My mother died on impact … she didn’t even know what was coming,” Boyle added. “It was early morning, so the sun was rising. It wasn’t pitch black.”

Boyle said she would support any front-end height restrictions that give pedestrians a "fighting chance to survive.”

The driver involved in the crash was not charged. 

Vehicle height, weight growing

Using NHTSA crash data from 2016 to 2021, Tyndall analyzed 3,400 crashes involving one car and one pedestrian. During those years, the average size of vehicles striking pedestrians rose. The median front-end height of vehicles striking pedestrians increased 5%, the vehicle’s weight 3% and the likelihood it was a light truck 11%.

Light trucks are a class of vehicles that include SUVs, pickups and vans, according to the study.

Tyndall also found that while the vehicle’s weight is factored into the physics of a crash, it is not as important as the front-end design.

The study says higher front ends may be particularly dangerous for pedestrians because the initial strikes are “more likely to be in the torso or head, rather than the legs.” Pedestrians are also likelier to wind up underneath larger vehicles than on the hood.

Wen Hu, a transportation engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Virginia, led a similar study last year that found vehicles with higher and more vertical front ends posed the greatest danger to pedestrians. Hood heights between 30 and 40 inches with a blunt, or more vertical, front end pose a greater risk to people walking. 

“We hope that more research can be done and the front end geometry could be considered in future new vehicle safety evaluations,” Hu said.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the last three decades have seen the average passenger vehicle grow 4 inches wider, 10 inches longer, 8 inches higher and 1,000 pounds bulkier.

Children are particularly vulnerable to bigger vehicles. The study published last month found higher front-end designs increase the chances a child walking will die by 81%, roughly four times that of adults. A 10-centimeter increase in front-end height also increases the risk of death for people over 65 by 31%.

The death rate for a pedestrian hit by a vehicle jumps from 9.1% when it's a car to 11.9% when it’s a pickup and 12.4% when it’s a full-size SUV, according to the study.

Threats on Long Island roads

Cynthia Brown, director of the New York Coalition for Transportation Safety, based in Westbury, said these bigger vehicles dominating roads on Long Island are a real threat. 

“Just look at the size of these pickup trucks: You really don’t have a chance," she said. "So, I try to tell people no matter whether you think you have the right of way, if you’re not aware you’re out of luck. You have to walk defensively.”

Dr. Richard Bagdonas, a trauma surgeon at Good Samaritan University Hospital in West Islip, said during his three-decade career he has seen a spike in traffic injuries, noting as the number of higher front-end vehicles has grown, so have pedestrian fatalities.

“If you get your principal impact directly on your torso, it’s a target-rich environment,” he said, noting the number of vital organs there. 

Bagdonas said while most vehicles have safety features including air bags, crumple zones and restraints to protect occupants, there are fewer features designed to protect pedestrians.

“Prevention is much better than the treatment,” Bagdonas said.

“If there was some similar crumple zone that would protect pedestrians, that would be helpful,” he said, adding that automatic braking and other technology could help prevent and lessen impact.

With Arielle Martinez

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Summer tourism ... Shark sightings on LI . . . Dino-Mite Vintage . . . What's Up on Long Island . . . Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV

Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV Credit: Newsday

Summer tourism ... Shark sightings on LI . . . Dino-Mite Vintage . . . What's Up on Long Island . . . Get the latest news and more great videos at NewsdayTV

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