LARGE 4x4 vehicles that are growing in popularity on UK roads have been exposed as more than twice as lethal to pedestrians than normal cars.
Authoritative new research by US scientists shows that when the high-fronted, wide-bodied vehicles, also known as SUVs (sports utility vehicles), crash into children or adults they are far more likely to cause head and chest injuries, and these are much more likely to be fatal.
Dozens of children in the US are also run over and killed every year by large vehicles reversing. The accidents often happen in their own driveways, and the drivers are often their own parents or carers.
Ordinary cars, whose profiles are lower and less blunt, tend to cause more leg and lower body injuries which are less life-threatening, and they have lower blind spots when reversing.
SUVs are used more often for urban errands than countryside sports. They have been dubbed the “axles of evil” by environmentalists because of the large amounts of fuel they consume and the huge amounts of pollution they cause.
In the UK, there were 135,000 SUVs bought last year, and their share of the market is rapidly expanding. Almost 5% of all car sales are now SUVs, up from 3% on 10 years ago. In the US, more than half of the passenger vehicles bought are SUVs, pick-up trucks or vans. The UK can learn much from US experience, particularly from the 5000 pedestrians killed each year in road accidents.
“What has happened here is an early warning for what to expect there,” Clay Gabler, an associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, told the Sunday Herald.
Along with his colleague Devon Lefler, Gabler analysed three major databases on US traffic accidents over the last decade. The first thing he discovered was that while the number of pedestrians killed by cars decreased between 1991 and 2000, the number killed by SUVs, pick-up trucks and vans increased by 10%.
Focusing on the 89% of accidents that involved a single vehicle and a single pedestrian, he then calculated the number of pedestrian fatalities per 1000 crashes by type of vehicle, between 1995 and 2000.
The results clearly showed that the larger and more blunt-fronted the vehicle was, the more likely it was to kill.
So while 4.5% of pedestrians struck by a car died, the figure rose to 7.8% when they were hit by a small SUV, and 11.5% when hit by a large one. “Pedestrians struck by large SUVs are twice as likely to die as pedestrians struck by cars,” Gabler and Lefler concluded in a study published in the journal, Accident Analysis & Prevention, and reported by New Scientist.
When they further analysed the data, they found that the types of injuries inflicted by SUVs and other large vehicles were more likely to be fatal.
Gabler said his study was the first to quantify the increased risk of death to pedestrians from SUVs and other large vehicles, though he stressed it was not their size or weight that mattered, so much as their shape. “The more geometrically blunt they are, the greater the fatality risk,” he said.
The new study has prompted pleas from motoring organisations and environmentalists for people to avoid buying off-road vehicles for use in built-up areas. “You would need to think carefully about buying that sort of vehicle for urban use,” said John Stubbs, head of technical policy with the AA Motoring Trust.
He accepted that SUVs may be more lethal to pedestrians, though he argued it was less of a problem in the UK than in the US. But he admitted the fuel they burn and pollution they emit meant they were “not very satisfactory” passenger vehicles.
“We have known for some time that SUVs guzzle fuel and poison the air we breathe. However, this study demonstrates that in our towns and cities they can have a much more immediate and deadly impact,” said Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“Such shocking findings should make any buyer think twice before purchasing an SUV. There are very few legitimate reasons why people living in urban Scotland need such polluting and deadly vehicles. Dropping the kids off at school isn’t one of them.”
That off-road vehicles also pose a danger to pedestrians in Europe is confirmed by safety tests performed on behalf of the UK and four other European governments. The European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) rates vehicles on the damage they would inflict on pedestrians in a 25 mph crash by giving them up to four stars for safety. Of the nine large off-road vehicles so far tested, one is so bad it earns no stars, seven earn one star, and one earns two stars (see table). Their designs are variously condemned as offering “poor” or “dire” protection to pedestrians.
The fronts of the vehicles are described as “unfriendly” and the performance of one manufacturer dismissed as “dismal”.
The killer potential of SUVs did not surprise Labour transport adviser, David Begg, chair of the Commission for Integrated Transport. “Four by fours were not designed to be kind to pedestrians,” he said.
They were attacked by the Green MSPs as “deadly weapons” and “an extreme form of anti-social behaviour”.
Last year in Scotland 305 people were killed in road accidents, 14 of them children, but no analysis has been done of how many 4x4s were involved. The Department for Transport pointed out that new European regulations designed to protect pedestrians would come into force in October 2005.
SUVs, however, were defended by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which represents the British car industry. A spokes woman said the vehicles in Britain were fewer and smaller than those in the US , and pedestrian safety was improving with the removal of “bull bars”, b ut she accepted that SUVs were more dangerous when they were in collisions .
In September, 23-month-old Jaxson Swank of South Bend, Indiana, died after he was run over by his nanny, Lindsay Reed, reversing an SUV up his driveway.
The accident was blamed by experts on the difficulty of seeing infants at the back of large vehicles. “In the US at least 58 children were backed over and killed last year, often by a relative in their own driveway, and often by a larger vehicle such as an SUV,” said Janette Fennell, founder of the US lobby group, Kids And Cars.
THE DANGERS LARGE 4x4s POSE TO PEDESTRIANS
The European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP), backed by the British, German, French, Swedish and Dutch governments, has tested the impact of large 4x4 vehicles ("off-roaders") on adult and child pedestrians in 25 mph collisions. Individual makes have then been given a "pedestrian test rating", ranging from zero to four stars. No large 4x4 has so far won more than two stars.
make / date / pedestrian test rating / comments
Volvo XC90 / 2003 / two stars / "Volvo needs to work harder to improve pedestrian safety."
Hyundai Santa Fe / 2003 / one star / "The vehicle did little for pedestrians. Only the area where a child’s head might strike ‘gave’ on impact."
Vauxhall/Opel Frontera / 2002 / one star / "Protection for pedestrians was poor; the vehicle makes too little provision for their safety."
Jeep Cherokee / 2003 / one star / "Protection given to pedestrians proved to be poor."
Range Rover / 2002 / one star / "Unfortunately, the level of protection given to pedestrians proved to be dire."
BMW X5 / 2003 / one star / "Pedestrian protection was dire."
KIA Sorento / 2003 / one star / "Protection for pedestrians was dire."
Mercedes-Benz M-Class / 2002 / one star / "Pedestrian protection was dire."
Suzuki Grand Vitara / 2002 / zero stars / "Its worst performance was for pedestrian safety, where it scored no points and no stars. Suzuki has told Euro NCAP that it will pay greater attention with future designs to this important aspect of vehicle safety."
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