Alyssa Milligan was someone who intuitively knew when another person needed help, encouragement or a kind word. Although she was new to Tennessee, the 23-year old physical therapy student, whose mother called her “Sweet Alyssa,” had already made many close connections, especially within the tight-knit cycling community around Nashville — before she was killed this month, struck by a pickup truck while cycling with a friend.
Roadway deaths in the U.S. are mounting despite government test data showing vehicles have been getting safer. While the number of all car-related fatalities has trended upward over the last decade, pedestrians and cyclists have seen the sharpest rise: over 60% between 2011 and 2022.
It coincides with a steep increase in sales of SUVs, pickup trucks and vans, which accounted for 78% of new U.S. vehicle sales in 2022, according to Motorintelligence.com.
Current U.S. ratings only consider the safety of the people inside the vehicle. The National Association of City Transportation Officials is leading an effort asking U.S. transportation officials to begin factoring the safety of those outside of vehicles into their 5-star safety ratings.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going on with the increase in pedestrian fatalities. It certainly seems like the increase in bigger vehicles is contributing to it,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“Many studies have shown that larger vehicles like SUVs and pickups are more likely to kill or seriously injure pedestrians and cyclists when they’re involved in a crash,” she said, noting that large vehicles are more likely to strike people in the head and vital organs, rather than the legs.
The design of these vehicles can also pose visibility problems. An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study of crashes with pedestrians at intersections found that the vehicles most likely to be involved in left-turn crashes were SUVs and pickups, suggesting “they might be having a harder time seeing some of those pedestrians,” Cicchino said.
Subaru, which has performed well in IIHS pedestrian crash avoidance tests, considers visibility its first line of safety, according to spokesperson Todd Hill. But that has become more challenging as safety standards for rollovers have required vehicles to improve the strength of the pillars that support the roof.
“The smaller the glass you make, the more design flexibility you have ... but it really comes at the sacrifice of outward visibility,” he said.
While there has been less research on blind spots directly in front of passenger vehicles, Consumer Reports found in 2021 that high hoods obstructed driver views of pedestrians. Meanwhile, a January 2023 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center determined “the increasingly large blind zones in SUVs and pickups have been associated with fatal ‘frontover’ crashes,” where people are run over by slow-moving vehicles.
The Volpe Center, which works to address the nation’s most pressing transportation challenges, recently collaborated to produce a web application called VIEW, which uses crowd-sourcing to create a database of vehicle blind zones. For example, the app shows that as many as eight elementary school children could stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a 2016 Chevrolet Silverado without being visible to the driver.