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Virginia Researchers Study Simple And High Tech Ways to Reduce Increasing Pedestrian Crashes

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began testing headlights in 2015. Visibility and glare measurements are taken continuously as a vehicle approaches each set of sensors.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began testing headlights in 2015. Visibility and glare measurements are taken continuously as a vehicle approaches each set of sensors. (Courtesy: IIHS) IIHS

Every ninety minutes, a pedestrian is killed in a traffic crash, according to federal data. That’s about 6,000 people a year. In Central Virginia, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is studying this issue and testing “crash avoidance” technologies that may lead to fewer deaths and injuries. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Read the IIHS study on pedestrian crashes, the analysis of Subaru's crash avoidance system and pedestrians and how IIHS tests and rates vehicle headlights


The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducts dozens of high-speed crash tests each year. Outside the facility, they also evaluate “crash avoidance” technologies.

Ken Melville: We’re going to drive at our target, at the end of this lane, it looks like a real car...

Engineering Technician Ken Melville stands under a vast tented track, imagine three football fields lined up side-by-side. He’s briefing a group about to try autonomous emergency braking or AEB. They’ll be driving toward a car-shaped target at about 15 MPH.

Melville: When you do, keep your foot on the accelerator, do not apply the brake, as if you were not paying attention and just drive straight at that car. The autonomous braking features will take over if it thinks you’re not in control of the car.

The Institute’s Michael Ciccone asks for volunteers, and we hop in one vehicle, a 2017 Subaru Outback which uses two cameras in its front crash prevention system. Another car on the track is the 2016 Hyundai Tucson which uses a camera and radar.

Michael Ciccone: You can start the car, put it in drive, don’t apply the brake. Go a little faster.

The driver cautiously increases her speed and then - just before the target, there’s a warning signal and the car comes to a halt all on its own. The systems help avoid rear-ending other vehicles. But the Institute’s research into Subaru’s EyeSight system shows another positive development: the ability to detect and brake for pedestrians. After analyzing insurance data, the Institute found a 35% decrease of likely pedestrian-related claims. 

Becky Mueller: Pedestrian crashes are increasing and as we see cars getting safer and other types of crashes decreasing, they’re are bigger portion of the problem.

Becky Mueller is a senior research engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent non-profit founded by the insurance industry in 1959. While US pedestrian deaths have jumped 46% in the last decade, Mueller says there are no regulations that vehicles must be tested for or include pedestrian safety features.

Mueller: In Europe, in Japan, in Korea and other countries, they actually do tests where they evaluate how soft the front ends of vehicles are and they evaluate pedestrian AEB (autonomous emergency braking) systems, the systems that can warn and break in the case of a pedestrian crossing in front of you. But this is an area that we really want to learn more about in the United States.

And in the US, says Mueller, we have more SUVs and pickups - bigger, heavier vehicles

Mueller: And those big, tall front-end vehicles are very deadly to pedestrians so we want to understand what can we do to lower the number of pedestrians that are killed in injured every year.

In Virginia alone, more than 700 pedestrians died and 17,000 were injured in vehicle crashes between 2010-2017. The majority of these crashes happen when it’s dark. Many roads lack sufficient lighting. But the Institute’s Matthew Brumbelow discovered something else: vehicles with better headlights were involved in fewer claims.

Matthew Brumbelow: As we found just from testing here on our track at night, there's a huge range of performance and the regulation does not control actual amount of light that hits the road from a headlight. So we were able to very quickly come up with a rating program and start testing vehicles ourselves so that manufacturers now have this target. They don't just design to a standard that doesn't ensure good real world performance, they can design to our test as well and know that it will improve the outcome on the road.

The Institute’s tests found that expensive cars didn’t necessarily have advanced headlights. And says Becky Mueller, few were looking at this straightforward way to reduce crashes.

Mueller: It’s such a simple and kind of like a duh moment, that if you can see better down the road you're less likely to hit whatever was in that path or go off the road or strike a pedestrian if you can see that kind of thing. So it's been really revolutionary and we think that it's really going to reduce the number of nighttime crashes that we see.

But better headlights and high-tech features like radars and cameras aren’t enough, say Mueller and others at the Institute. They call for a comprehensive approach that looks at road design and speed limits, as well as lighting, sidewalks and the number of safe places people have to cross the street. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.