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Pedestrians and bicyclists

Overview

Pedestrian deaths have increased 80% since reaching their low point in 2009 and account for 17% of crash fatalities. Two percent of people killed in motor vehicle crashes are bicyclists.

Traffic engineering improvements can reduce pedestrian and bicyclist crashes. Solutions include building median islands and adjusting traffic signals to create an exclusive pedestrian or bicyclist phase or to give them a head start before vehicles get a green light. Lowering vehicle speeds can also reduce injury severity for pedestrians and bicyclists involved in crashes.

Crash avoidance features and other vehicle improvements may also make pedestrians and bicyclists safer. Forward collision avoidance systems are increasingly designed to detect pedestrians in a vehicle's path, and rear cameras may prevent backover crashes. Modifying the front structures of vehicles may reduce the severity of pedestrian injuries. Regulators in Europe and elsewhere have been encouraging pedestrian protection in vehicle design through their vehicle testing programs.

Helmets provide critical protection for bicyclists. Among a majority of bicyclists killed in crashes, head injuries are the most serious injuries. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50%.

Latest news

Tall, blocky vehicles put pedestrians at risk

Vehicles with especially tall front ends are most dangerous to pedestrians, but a blunt profile makes medium-height vehicles deadly too.

November 14, 2023

Technology that brakes for bicyclists

Early versions of Subaru’s EyeSight system prevented nearly 30 percent of crashes with bicycles traveling parallel to the roadway but had little effect on crossing crashes — the most common variety.

June 6, 2023

By the numbers

There were 7,388 pedestrians and 961 bicyclists killed in 2021 and approximately 60,000 pedestrians and 41,000 bicyclists injured in motor vehicle crashes on public roadways in the United States. Pedestrians comprised about 17% of crash deaths, and bicyclists made up an additional 2%.

Bicycle helmets

In a majority of bicyclist deaths, the most serious injuries are to the head, highlighting the importance of wearing a bicycle helmet (). Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50%, and the odds of head, face or neck injury by 33% ().Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have helmet use laws applying to young bicyclists. None of these laws apply to all riders. Local ordinances in a few states require some or all bicyclists to wear helmets.

The odds that a bicyclist will wear a helmet are 4 times higher after a helmet law is enacted than before a law is passed ().  Helmets are important for riders of all ages, not just young bicyclists. Ninety percent of fatally injured bicyclists in 2021 were age 20 or older. During the past few years, only about 15% of fatally injured bicyclists were known to be wearing helmets.

Helmet use rates are lower among bike share users than among riders of personally owned bicycles, even in cities requiring helmet use for all ages (; ).

Not all helmets provide the same reduction in concussion risk (Bland et al., 2018). A bicycle helmet ratings program at Virginia Tech, based on research performed in collaboration with IIHS, ranks helmets on their performance in impact tests.

Vehicle speeds

Higher vehicle speeds increase the risk of crash involvement and the risk of injury or death when a crash occurs. Because pedestrians and bicyclists don't have a vehicle's structure to protect them, small increases in vehicle speeds have an especially large impact on the risk of a serious injury or fatality. In a study of U.S. pedestrian crashes, the average risk of severe injury to a pedestrian increased from 10% at an impact speed of 17 mph to 25% at 25 mph, 50% at 33 mph, 75% at 41 mph, and 90% at 48 mph ().

Effective engineering measures to reduce speeds in urban areas include traffic calming devices such as speed humps and multiway stop signs (Retting et al., 2003;  ). Traffic calming can also be installed at intersections to reduce the speeds of left-turning vehicles (Hu & Cicchino, 2020). Lowering speed limits on city streets reduces the proportion of vehicles traveling at high speeds and has potential to prevent pedestrian and bicyclist injuries (Hu & Cicchino, 2020).

Design along roadways

One key strategy for protecting pedestrians and bicyclists is to separate them from motor vehicles — for example, with sidewalks or bike lanes. Research has shown that sidewalks in residential areas are highly effective (Retting et al., 2003), while creating bike lanes is associated with reductions in crashes ().

Separated bike lanes, also called protected bike lanes, are physically separated from traffic with barriers such as posts or parked cars. A 2023 study in the U.S. found separated bike lanes are more safety-effective than traditional painted bike lanes ().

An IIHS study (Cicchino et al., 2020) found that the risk of crashing or falling can vary in separated lanes with different designs. The study suggested that characteristics that minimize conflict points, such as fewer intersections with roads and driveways, more continuous separation, and less complexity for crossing vehicles, can reduce the risk.

Intersections and mid-block crossings

Pedestrians and bicyclists can be separated from traffic as they cross the street by overpasses, underpasses, and median islands in busy two-way streets (Retting et al., 2003). Curb extensions reduce the time pedestrians are in the road and make them more visible to drivers (). Narrowing or eliminating travel lanes on multilane roads with a road diet can allow more space for median islands and curb extensions, as well as for sidewalks and bike lanes ().

Effective countermeasures involving changes to traffic signals include exclusive traffic signal phasing that stops all vehicle traffic for part or all of the pedestrian or cyclist crossing signal duration, and left turn phasing, in which left-turning vehicles have a green arrow and crossing pedestrians or cyclists have a red light (Retting et al., 2003; ; ).

Extending the time available for pedestrians to cross at intersections with signals can be beneficial, especially for older pedestrians (; ).Providing pedestrians a three- or four-second head start through a leading pedestrian interval (a signal that allows pedestrians to begin crossing before the release of turning vehicles) has been found to reduce pedestrian crashes (; ).

Special warning signs and pavement markings to encourage or prompt pedestrians to look for turning vehicles as they cross the street may help at signalized intersections (Retting et al., 1996).

Pedestrian hybrid beacons make pedestrians more visible to motorists by alerting drivers to stop at crosswalks across major arterials when pedestrians are present. The signals are activated by pedestrians and remain dark when there are no pedestrians. In a 2021 study, pedestrian hybrid beacons were associated with a 45% reduction in pedestrian fatal and injury crashes (). Although the effects on cyclists have not been tested, pedestrian hybrid beacons have potential to benefit crossing cyclists as well as pedestrians.
A woman crosses at a pedestrian hybrid beacon in Arlington, Virginia. The beacon remains dark until a pedestrian activates it. First, it flashes yellow before moving to solid yellow and then to solid double red.

Rapid-flashing beacons, which are yellow LEDs mounted to pedestrian or bicyclist crossing signs that flash in an irregular pattern when nonmotorists are present, also draw the attention of drivers to pedestrians and cyclists and have been shown to reduce pedestrian crashes by 47% ().

Bike boxes, also called advanced stop lines or advanced stop boxes, are designated areas for bicyclists to stop in front of queued traffic at red lights. They have been shown to reduce conflicts with vehicles at signalized intersections ().

Vehicle design

Vehicle type and design can affect both the likelihood of a pedestrian crash and the severity of injuries to pedestrians. In a study of pedestrian crashes between 2009 and 2016, IIHS researchers found that fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs increased 81%, more than any other vehicle type (Hu & Cicchino, 2018).

A 2022 IIHS study found that SUVs, pickups and vans are more likely to strike pedestrians when making turns than cars, relative to when they are traveling straight at intersections (Hu & Cicchino, 2022). This finding suggests that visibility while turning may be an issue for these bigger vehicles.

Pedestrians and bicyclists are more likely to die or be seriously injured when struck by SUVs or pickups than when struck by cars (Monfort & Mueller, 2020; Monfort & Mueller, 2023; ). A big reason for this is the height and shape of these vehicles’ front ends.

Most struck pedestrians and bicyclists are hit by the front of a passenger vehicle. An adult pedestrian is likely to be struck in the legs and may be thrown onto the hood of the car (). In contrast, when a pedestrian is struck by a taller vehicle such as an SUV or pickup truck, particularly one with a more vertical front end, the impact is higher on the body. In this case, the person is likely to be knocked down and run over. There has been a great deal of research into how vehicle front ends, including those of SUVs and pickups, can be modified to reduce the threat they pose to pedestrians (; ; ).As a result of this research, regulators in Europe, Japan, Korea and Australia have implemented vehicle testing programs specifically aimed at protecting pedestrians. These testing programs focus on pedestrian interaction with the hood and bumper and in some cases the hood edge and the windshield. The European New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) has plans to introduce testing of vehicle front ends that will also address bicyclist injuries. In 2023, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration proposed adding pedestrian crashworthiness testing to future U.S. NCAP evaluations ().To perform well in these tests, automakers have been putting more room between the hood and engine, designing pop-up hoods that automatically lift up a few inches upon impact, adding pedestrian hood airbags that cover the parts of the windshield and A-pillar where pedestrians frequently hit their heads, and designing bumpers with more give ().

Crash avoidance technology

Pedestrian detection systems continuously monitor traffic in front of vehicles and warn drivers of potential collisions with pedestrians. Many systems automatically apply the brakes when a crash is imminent. Systems are being developed to prevent or mitigate crashes with cyclists as well.

An IIHS study found that vehicles equipped with automatic braking that detects pedestrians had a 27% lower rate of pedestrian crashes than vehicles without such technology (Cicchino, 2022). Injury crash rates were 30% lower. However, when the researchers looked only at pedestrian crashes that occurred at night on roads without streetlights, there was no difference in crash risk for vehicles with and without the feature. Systems that function better in the dark would likely have a much larger benefit.

IIHS began rating pedestrian crash prevention systems in 2019 and launched a separate evaluation of the systems’ nighttime performance in 2022.

The Highway Loss Data Institute studied insurance claim rates for Subaru models with and without the optional EyeSight system, a crash avoidance system with pedestrian-detection capability (Wakeman et al., 2019). Pedestrian injury claim rates were 35% lower among vehicles with EyeSight than among vehicles without. Claims were assumed to be from pedestrian crashes if they involved a bodily injury liability claim without a claim for vehicle damage.

Rearview cameras have been shown to prevent backing crashes with pedestrians (), and could potentially prevent such crashes with bicyclists.

Electric and hybrid vehicles

A vehicle's sound helps pedestrians, especially those who are visually impaired, detect a vehicle's presence and movements. Electric vehicles emit less sound than vehicles with combustion engines. The same is true of hybrid vehicles when powered solely by electricity.A government study examined the crashes of hybrid vehicles and similar nonhybrid vehicles and found that the likelihood of crashing with a pedestrian was 39% higher for hybrids than for nonhybrids in areas where speed limits were 35 mph or slower and 66% higher when performing certain maneuvers such as turning, stopping and backing up (). These maneuvers typically occur at very low speeds, when hybrids operate mostly on electric power.

In a study of insurance claims for 2005-17 hybrid models and their conventional twins, the Highway Loss Data Institute found that hybrids were as much as 10% more likely to be involved in pedestrian crashes with injuries than their non-hybrid equivalents (HLDI, 2018). Claims were assumed to stem from a pedestrian crash if they involved an injury liability claim without a claim for vehicle damage. 

New hybrid and electric vehicles are required to emit a motorlike sound while moving forward or in reverse at speeds up to 19 mph as of February 28, 2021 ().

Daylight saving time

Adding an hour of light to the afternoon increases the visibility of both vehicles and pedestrians, and Institute research has found that implementing daylight saving time year round could help prevent pedestrian deaths and injuries (Ferguson et al., 1995).

IIHS researchers estimated that about 900 fatal crashes (727 involving pedestrians and 174 involving vehicle occupants) could have been avoided during 1987-91 if daylight saving time had been in effect throughout the year.

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