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Testing cars that help drivers steer clear of pedestrians

New York

ALMOST 6,300 pedestrians were killed in 2018 in the United States, the highest number since 1990, federal officials said this month. Collision-avoidance systems on many new vehicles could reduce that toll, but there are significant differences in how well they work, according to new tests.

Such systems scan the road ahead - sometimes with a camera, radar or lasers. If an object is detected, a computer can issue a warning and ultimately apply the brakes.

"We think these kinds of systems - as they become more prevalent in the fleet - will make a difference in reducing pedestrian fatalities," said David Harkey, the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which conducted the tests.

But the tests, conducted on 16 midsize sedans, found a wide range of abilities among the systems. Some cars stopped before the pedestrian dummy could be hit, others were slower to react. In one case, the vehicle did not reduce its speed and hit a child dummy.

The test results were released on Tuesday, one week after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said pedestrian deaths in 2018 increased 3.4 per cent over 2017. The institute released its results before Halloween, one of the deadliest days of the year for pedestrians.

According to the federal statistics, 76 per cent of the 2018 fatalities occurred after dark and 38 per cent of the victims "had some alcohol in their systems". About three-quarters were not crossing at intersections.

Unfortunately, collision-avoidance systems work best in daylight, Mr Harkey said, but automakers are working on systems that perform better at night.

The institute based its ratings on how much each vehicle was able to reduce its speed in each of three tests:

  • An adult walking into the street as a vehicle approaches at 12 and then 25 mph. There are no parked vehicles or signs obstructing the view of the pedestrian.
  • A child running into the street from behind parked cars as a vehicle approaches at 12 and then 25 mph. This was described as the most challenging test.
  • An adult walking along a road, facing away from traffic as the vehicle approaches at 25 and then 37 mph.

The institute ranked vehicles in four categories: superior, advanced, basic and "no credit". Six of the 16 got a "superior" rating, which means they either avoided hitting the dummy or slowed enough that the institute predicted a greatly reduced chance of severe injury. They are the 2019 Audi A4, 2019-20 BMW 3 Series, 2019-20 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, 2019-20 Nissan Maxima, 2020 Subaru Outback and 2019 Volvo S60.

The Maxima was the top performer, the institute said. In each test, it avoided hitting the pedestrian.

Mr Harkey said the institute was pleased that many of the vehicles did well and that two of the top performers - the Nissan Maxima and Subaru Outback - were not luxury models. But he said it was "a little bit disappointing" that the two domestic models did not fare better.

The 2019-20 Chevrolet Malibu was ranked "basic" regardless of whether it was equipped with either of two available systems: a camera focused on the road or an optional camera supplemented with radar.

The 2019-20 Ford Fusion was in the "no credit" category for vehicles that failed to slow "significantly". Indeed, the institute said the Fusion did not slow at all for the test involving the child. The 2019 Hyundai Sonata and 2019 Kia Optima were also in the "no credit" category.

A Ford spokeswoman, Monique Brentley, noted that the 2019 Fusion's collision-prevention system received a superior rating in a different test for its ability to avoid a stationary target simulating a car and that the automaker "remains committed to designing vehicles that provide high levels of safety for our customers". Miles Johnson, a Hyundai spokesman, said the automaker "will carefully analyse the IIHS data to determine if there are any steps we can take". Officials from Kia did not respond to a request for comment.

One thing that might confuse consumers is that some models have two versions of collision-avoidance systems. For example, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class with an optional system was ranked superior. The same model equipped with the standard system fell into the "basic category". The BMW 3-Series also has a standard and a more expensive, optional system. The institute said it was surprised to see that the standard system was ranked superior, while the optional system was less effective and ranked one notch down, in the advanced category.

The models that were ranked in the advanced category were the 2019-20 BMW 3 Series with the optional system, 2019-20 Honda Accord, 2019-20 Lexus ES 350, 2019 Mazda 6, 2019-20 Nissan Altima, 2019-20 Tesla Model 3 and 2019-20 Toyota Camry. The systems were standard on the six luxury cars tested as well as six of the other 10 models.

Mr Harkey said the good news for consumers was that automakers were increasingly putting collision-avoidance systems on more models and making them standard equipment. "There are some very good options out there at a variety of price ranges," he added. NYTIMES

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