Americans Are Buying More SUVs—and Using Them to Kill Pedestrians

Pedestrian deaths up 35 percent over 10 years, but drivers aren’t being prosecuted

By Paul Rauber

March 17, 2019


Photo by PinkBadger/iStock

In Georgia this week, a teen who killed two women pedestrians and a baby with her Jeep in 2017 received her sentence: probation, 240 hours of community service, a $4,000 fine, and remedial driver training. "You’re pretty young," the judge told Zoe Reardon, now 19. "You’ve got a lifetime ahead of you.” 

The same could not be said, obviously, for 61-year-old Kathy Deming, 28-year-old Kaitlin Hunt, and her three-month-old daughter, Riley. They are just statistics, collateral damage to an automotive culture built around speed, comfort, and obliviousness. At least Reardon was charged in the case—very often, drivers who kill pedestrians and cyclists are not.

According to a new study by the Governors Highway Safety Association, the simple act of walking is becoming increasingly dangerous. From 2008 to 2017, the number of pedestrians killed by motor vehicles rose by 35 percent, from 4,414 to 5,977. The GHSA projects that when the final figures are in, 2018 will prove deadlier yet, with 6,227 walkers killed. At a time when all other traffic fatalities are declining, pedestrian deaths as a percentage of total traffic deaths are increasing—from 12 percent in 2008 to 16 percent in 2016 and 2017. 

What’s up with that? Here’s a clue:


“Light trucks” are a category that includes (in addition to pickups) vans, minivans, and especially sport-utility vehicles. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the number of pedestrians killed by SUVs increased by 81 percent from 2009 to 2016. SUVs kill pedestrians for the same reasons people like to buy SUVs: They’re higher off the ground and more powerful, and their blunt geometry means that when they hit you, instead of bouncing on the hood and standing a chance, you’re knocked to the ground and run over. 


That’s too bad for pedestrians and cyclists but very good news for automakers, which are now selling twice as many light trucks as cars. Sales of Jeeps, the vehicle that killed Deming and the Hunts, rose by 17 percent last year, according to Automotive News(“Clearly, Jeep's been killing it,” says an economist at Cox Automotive.) Automakers that were talking a good game during the Obama years about transitioning to clean electric vehicles are now all about more and more trucks and SUVs

The GHSA study makes some helpful good-government suggestions to reduce the carnage: Better street lighting, “pedestrian refuge islands” in the middle of busy thoroughfares, “pedestrian detection systems” that pay attention to nonvehicular traffic even if the driver doesn’t. In addition, the report suggests, “States should also continue to work with local law enforcement partners to address chronic driver violations that contribute to pedestrian crashes such as speeding, impaired driving, and distracted driving.” 

Prosecuting drivers who use their giant vehicles to kill pedestrians, sadly, does not make the list.