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Federal review to focus on whether vehicle design changes could improve pedestrian, bicyclist safety

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) will conduct a review of U.S. vehicle safety design standards and their effects on the safety of vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists, according to a press release from Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland). 

Raskin said the decision follows a letter he sent to the agency last month that addressed high levels of traffic injuries and fatalities nationally. 

“Congress and regulators should consider to reduce the risks of fatalities related to vehicle design; and actions taken by transportation safety regulators in other countries to reduce traffic fatalities,” the press release says. “Rep. Raskin’s letter emphasized the need to protect cyclists and pedestrians in blind zones: areas in front of or behind a vehicle that are not directly visible from the driver’s seat.” 

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data 7,522 pedestrians were killed and 67,000 injured nationwide in 2022. It says a pedestrian is killed every 70 minutes in traffic crashes. NHTSA says on average 800 bicyclists are killed annually

“This deadly trend on our roadways has made the United States an appalling exception among developed countries, which have made substantial progress in advancing road safety for their citizens through robust vehicle safety standards and smart street design…” Raskin says in the release. 

Corinne Kisner, National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) executive director, said in the release cities across the nation have started building sidewalks and redesigning deadly streets. 

“But we cannot fully address the traffic safety crisis without evaluating all aspects of the transportation system,” said Kisner. “Americans’ cars and SUVs have gotten bigger, heavier, and deadlier. It’s past time to take a comprehensive look at how vehicle design has changed and how the federal government–from Congress to NHTSA–can ensure that the vehicles on the road are designed for safety.”

Improving truck cab design to increase driver visibility is one step manufacturers can make, said Peter Goldwasser, Together for Safer Roads executive director, in the release. 

“As an organization, we have focused heavily on the issue of commercial vehicle design, as we know direct/high vision vehicles have proven to significantly reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities, as evidenced by a 75% reduction in fatal crashes and a 64% reduction in severe injury crashes in London since the implementation of a direct vision standard in 2019,” Goldwasser says. “Given that approximately 40,000 people lose their lives on U.S. roads annually, addressing blind zones and improving driver visibility through vehicle design is essential to reversing this troubling trend and making roads safer for all.” 

Bill Nesper, League of American Bicyclists executive director, said people biking and walking are dying due to motor vehicle crashes at the highest numbers in more than 40 years. He said a previous 2020 GAO study found that the increased size of cars is part of the problem. 

“The same can, unfortunately, be said for crashes involving large trucks: the number of people biking killed in crashes with large trucks has risen 98 percent since 2009 while the number of people walking killed has increased by 106 percent,” Nesper said. 

Jessica Riester Hart, Families for Safe Streets committee member, said her five-year-old daughter was hit and killed while riding her bicycle in a crosswalk in a school zone just a block away from their home. 

“Her 40-pound body was no match for the multi-ton transit van that struck and killed her,” Rister Hart said. “Commercial vehicles must be designed with safety as a priority. If the vehicle had fewer blind zones and greater safety protections, the driver may have seen her or the brakes may have automatically engaged, preventing the van from hitting and killing her.” 

In May, NHTSA finalized a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) that will make automatic emergency braking (AEB), including pedestrian AEB (PAEB), standard on all passenger cars and light trucks by September 2029.

NHTSA expects FMVSS No. 127 will significantly reduce rear-end and pedestrian crashes, saving at least 360 lives and preventing at least 24,000 injuries every year. 

AEB systems use sensors to detect when a vehicle is close to crashing into a vehicle or pedestrian in front and automatically apply the brakes if the driver doesn’t. PAEB technology detects a pedestrian in both daylight and at night.

In June 2023, NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced a separate notice of proposed rulemaking that would require heavy vehicles, including tractor-trailers, to have AEB, which the agencies are in the process of finalizing.


Photo courtesy of Toa55/iStock

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