Fairfax police Sgt. Pat Wimberly sees it at least once a month: A pedestrian steps into traffic and gets hit, and the outcome is always one-sided. "Whoever designed and implemented the human body never intended that to happen," Wimberly said.
Now the auto industry is debating whether it can change the equation, designing cars and trucks that are less deadly in collisions with pedestrians. At least one major supplier has developed an air bag that deploys on the outside of a car, to cushion the impact on a person's head. Honda Motor Co. has led the industry by redesigning its entire fleet of vehicles to make the hoods more forgiving to pedestrians.
Autoliv's new protection system for pedestrians lifts the hood to provide a 'softer landing' for the head and reduce the risk of contact with rigid engine and structure parts underneath
(Autoliv North America)
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Beginning this fall, the European Union will require manufacturers to meet pedestrian safety standards on all new models of vehicles, with stricter requirements on the way in 2010. Japan is not far behind.
But the rush to act is meeting resistance in the United States, where industry and government regulators alike say making automobiles more pedestrian-friendly is not a priority. Carmakers argue that such changes add cost and alter vehicle appearance in ways consumers might not like -- rounding off hoods and shortening front ends to lessen the danger to the human body. They also contend that driving is different overseas, where pedestrians are more likely to come into contact with automobiles in crowded cities.
"We view it as a longer-term priority," said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "We're looking at things we might employ somewhere down the road, but it's a different environment in Europe. [Pedestrian safety technology] will be there sooner than here."
Detroit's manufacturers will incorporate the new technologies and designs on vehicles they sell overseas, but not domestically. Still, some products sold in the United States are likely to be affected as regulations take hold abroad.
"If the changes are structural, in the design of the car, that would come here automatically," said Tom Purves, chairman of BMW North America. BMW is looking into a number of approaches, Purves said, from redesigning vehicle front ends to using "active" hoods that pop up slightly on impact, creating space between the sheet metal and the harder engine block below.
About 5,000 pedestrians die every year in the United States from being struck by automobiles, according to government statistics. That's about 12 percent of the 43,000 total annual highway deaths nationwide. Locally, fast-growing suburbs have struggled with pedestrian safety. Montgomery County, for instance, had the same number of pedestrian fatalities last year -- 17 -- as homicides.
Such incidents are more common in Europe, where roughly 20 percent of all traffic fatalities are pedestrians, and in Japan, at 30 percent.
European safety agencies have begun rating vehicles for pedestrian safety based on crash tests, something the United States does not do. U.S. regulators considered imposing pedestrian safety guidelines on the auto industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but abandoned the effort.