In an effort to prevent nearly 6,000 deaths each year, many new cars are being equipped with systems that can detect the presence of pedestrians and automatically apply the brakes under certain conditions. But significant improvements are needed before radar and sensors can take the place of engaged drivers, according to new research by AAA.

In 2017, the Idaho Transportation Department reported 16 pedestrian fatalities, about the same as the previous year and nearly seven percent of the total traffic deaths. But the number of serious injuries continues to climb, from 51 in 2015 to 79 just two years later.

“Automakers have a difficult task - to develop technology that can consistently recognize pedestrians and react accordingly,” says AAA Idaho spokesman Matthew Conde. “The problem is that pedestrians come in all shapes and sizes. They move at different speeds, and they may enter and exit the road in unpredictable ways. That’s why AAA conducted independent research to see how these systems perform.”

With highly-sophisticated mannequins standing in for pedestrians, AAA tested four cars on a closed course to see how their detection systems would fare in a variety of real-world scenarios, with five runs per scenario. The results were disconcerting. At 20 mph, a collision with a pedestrian who was crossing the street in broad daylight was avoided just 40 percent of the time. And at 30 mph, only one test vehicle avoided collision with the pedestrian in 2 out of 5 runs.

As conditions became more dynamic, the systems struggled even more. When traveling at 20 mph, a collision with a child who darted out from between two cars occurred 89 percent of the time, and at 30 mph, none of the vehicles were able to avoid a collision. As they completed a right-hand turn, all of the cars struck the adult pedestrian crossing at the intersection.

AAA also completed research for the presence of more than one pedestrian. When the test vehicles approached two adults at 20 mph, a collision occurred 80 percent of the time. At 30 mph, only one vehicle avoided a collision on one of the five runs.

“In addition to the vehicles’ limited performance at fairly low speeds, it’s even more troubling that none of the detection systems were effective at night, when 75 percent of pedestrian deaths occur,” Conde said. “While we appreciate that vehicle manufacturers are doing their best to prevent false positives that could result in sudden and unsafe braking, it’s clear that this technology has a long way to go before the automobile can take over for an attentive driver.”

Another surprising result was uncovered during AAA’s testing – the same vehicle behaved inconsistently from run to run under identical conditions.

Driver beware

AAA will share its findings with automakers to encourage additional development of more reliable detection systems. But in the meantime, drivers can take several steps to protect pedestrians:

Always be aware of your surroundings. Don’t rely on detection systems to prevent a crash, and slow down in areas where children are likely to be present, including residential neighborhoods, parks, and school zones.

Know how your safety systems work. Before you leave the lot, ask the dealer what systems your vehicle is equipped with, and how they will perform, including what the safety alerts will sound and look like.

Be careful at night. This is the riskiest time for pedestrians, and when detection systems struggled the most. Watch for pedestrians and cyclists, particularly when executing a turn that will take you through a crosswalk.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, alcohol – for the driver and/or the pedestrian – was involved in 47 percent of the traffic crashes that resulted in pedestrian fatalities in 2017. AAA and NHTSA encourage all road users to drink responsibly.

Rural states like North Dakota, Wyoming and Vermont had the fewest pedestrian deaths. More-populated states like California, Florida and Texas had the highest number of deaths.

“There are plenty of short days ahead as we move through fall and winter, and just about every town has areas where there aren’t a lot of streetlights,” Conde said. “Pedestrians need to stay on sidewalks, use crosswalks whenever possible, and wear bright or reflective clothing at night to stay safe.”

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