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Regulating the Pedestrian Safety Crisis

Gregory H. Shill

In the 2010s, the United States entered a pedestrian safety crisis that is unique among wealthy nations. Deaths of people on foot surged more than 46% that decade, outpacing the increase in all other traffic deaths by nine to one. The early 2020s have seen an intensification of this trend. These fatalities magnify racial disparities, placing Black pedestrians at a two-thirds higher risk of being killed than their white counterparts. While the pedestrian safety crisis has many causes, there is growing evidence that the enlargement of the American vehicle has played a key role. Auto companies earn higher profit margins on large vehicles, and consumers prefer their greater creature comforts. But the size, height, and weight necessary for those comforts has been shown to make these vehicles far deadlier for those who have the misfortune of being struck by them. Carmakers do not disclose these risks to the car-buying public—but even if they did, individual consumers lack appropriate incentives to internalize the social costs of the vehicles they buy. Like pollution, this negative externality presents a classic case for regulation. Yet America’s vehicle safety regulator (the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA), conceived in the wake of the Ralph Nader consumer revolution of the 1960s, considers the safety of pedestrians—who are third parties rather than consumers—almost completely alien to its mission.                    

This Essay presents a different model, based on NHTSA’s own statutory mandate to protect “the public” as a whole from risks posed by motor vehicles. It argues that pedestrians are, quintessentially, a group whose well-being vehicle safety regulators should prioritize—even though when acting as pedestrians they are not consumers of the regulated product. Pedestrians are maximally exposed to dangerous vehicles, and by definition they benefit from neither vehicle comforts nor most occupant-focused safety features. They may even be endangered by some of them. NHTSA should expressly incorporate the welfare of pedestrians and other non-occupants into its mission. To that end, this Essay develops four policy actions NHTSA should undertake as part of a policy update it launched in 2022: include pedestrian safety in its marquee safety evaluation program; regulate the design of vehicles to protect people outside of them; use technology to protect pedestrians; and update its safety tests so they are more representative of common fatal pedestrian crash victims and scenarios.