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The Globe and Mail

Concerned about pedestrian safety? Let's start with dangerous SUV mentality

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

Recently, four-year-old Arisa Ahmed and her seven-year-old sister, Ayra, were struck by a Mercedes SUV while crossing the street in front of their school in a residential neighbourhood of Markham, a northeastern suburb of Toronto. Arisa was killed and Ayra was taken to hospital with serious injuries.

Every aspect of this collision will be investigated. But as traffic authorities consider installing the speed bumps and stop sign that residents say they have been requesting for years, one factor will escape scrutiny: the vehicle that did it.

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We in the land of cheap gas and vast geography like our cars big and powerful.

A combination of psychological and design factors make large passenger vehicles such as SUVs much more of a threat to pedestrians and cyclists than standard passenger cars, a fact that deserves attention as a larger class of vehicle comes to dominate our roads.

Within a generation, the sport utility vehicle has gone from a fringe phenomenon to the new normal. According to industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers, SUVs represent the fastest-growing segment of Canada's vehicle market, with sales tripling in the past decade as those of passenger cars have shrivelled.

SUVs are the vehicle of choice for young families, thanks in part to their ample interior space and cachet, but primarily because we think they're safe.

Despite research on their rollover risk, slower braking times and poorer handling, we're convinced that the basic laws of physics pertain: If it comes down to a highway encounter between a Fiat two-door and a GMC Yukon, we know where we'd rather be.

When we say "safe," we're thinking in terms of occupants, picturing our little bundles of joy packed into the back seat, and not pedestrians, face to face with the front grille, invisible to the driver and, assuming the vehicle is in motion, doomed.

Researchers at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute have concluded that a pedestrian hit by an LTV (light truck vehicle, which includes minivans, pickup trucks and SUVs) is more than three times more likely to be killed than one hit by a car – less due to the vehicle's greater mass than due to its height and the design of its front end. A pedestrian hit by a passenger car will, with luck (a relative term), be struck in the legs and sent over the hood. An LTV will probably strike a pedestrian with its blunt hood – for adults, at the level of the torso, home of the vital organs; for kids, the level of the head.

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The LTV will then knock 65 per cent of adults and 93 per cent of children to the ground, where they have a good chance of being run over.

The good news is that, with safety technologies continually improving, the total number of accidents and fatalities on Canadian roads is in steady decline.

The bad news is the portion of those fatalities that are pedestrians and cyclists continues to rise. Studies show the more convinced a driver is of the safety of his own vehicle, the more careless he is in its operation.

As a first step toward mitigating this risk, we need better data. In Ontario, the municipal and provincial statistics on pedestrian collisions use the term "automobile" to cover everything that is not a van, truck, bus or streetcar. With automobiles causing nearly 10 times more deaths than any other type of vehicle, this figure needs to be broken down into categories employed by automotive engineers so research can be correlated.

We should also consider tougher testing. Having taken my driver's exam in both Ontario and Germany, I would liken the former to hard-boiling an egg and the latter to mastering a soufflé. The Germans insist on knowledge of the vehicle's inner workings and the relationship between mass and velocity, and hyper-vigilance with respect to pedestrians and cyclists. Young Germans grumble about the failure rate of 30 per cent on the driving exam, but their country sees one-third fewer pedestrian fatalities per capita than Canada.

As an SUV-driving friend said to me, "I feel like I'm insulting my car when I drive 30 kilometres an hour," referring to the speed limit on many residential streets in Toronto. "The car's begging to do more."

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Let it beg. And drivers must bear in mind that the more ensconced and elevated our vehicle makes us feel, the more likely we are to ruin the life of a non-vehicular fellow being.

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