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  • Writer's pictureNATALIA SOUSA

How Automakers and Researchers Work to Help Protect Pedestrians Through a Ground breaking Alliance

As American streets have grown more crowded, the risks to pedestrians, cyclists and others who share those streets have increased. For example, in the United States in 2019, a pedestrian was killed every 85 minutes in a traffic crash.

To help address pedestrian-related trends, automakers, academic institutions and government agencies, including law enforcement in Michigan formed the Vulnerable Road Users Injury Prevention Alliance (VIPA).

VIPA, which includes Volkswagen Group of America as a founding partner, is dedicated to gathering and studying detailed data on pedestrian safety to help find ways to reduce pedestrian-related collisions, as pedestrians are referred to as “vulnerable road users” by VIPA safety researchers.

VIPA built two key databases to help researchers by using Michigan as a focus. The first monitors' samples from police-reported crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists and, when possible, matches with injury data from treating hospitals. The second provides a reconstruction of selected collisions, with an in-depth pre-crash, vehicle, and medical data, to help find trends that could potentially lead to better pedestrian and bicyclist protection.

Jason Gainey, Senior Manager of Vehicle Safety and Compliance for Volkswagen Group of America’s Vehicle Safety Office, says VIPA provides unique insights and is one of the only sources of such data in North America.

“Real-world data like this plays a crucial role in determining how policymakers and the industry can better protect pedestrians, cyclists and other road users,” Gainey said. “It gives us insights to better understand the problem, why and how these collisions with pedestrians are happening and what can be learned to help improve our vehicle designs to prevent, or at least minimize the severity of the interaction between pedestrians and vehicles in the future.”

Additionally, Dr. Stewart Wang of VIPA spoke about how to provide that data: “Our main goal with this project is to provide actionable data to improve vehicle design and safety-enhancing features for vulnerable road users.” He says that the “Automotive engineers will use the data, policymakers, and transportation planners [who] need unbiased, real-world, representative data upon which to make safety-enhancing design decisions to protect vulnerable road users best.” The data is routinely accessed and referred to by Volkswagen in its pursuit to help make pedestrians safer.

Just as the science of crash safety for vehicle occupants looks closely at how a body reacts to the force inside the car, researchers studying pedestrian-vehicle crashes do the same for trauma outside the vehicle.

What’s more is how these auto safety researchers are using the plethora of data being collected. Thanks to VIPA’s unique abilities and analysis, the findings they make today can help develop the safety-enhancing systems of tomorrow, not just to mitigate the effects of these collisions but even potentially to avoid them entirely.

The 2022 NCAP (New Car Assessment Program) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) spent time focusing on the collision safety systems that monitor what is around the car and driver monitoring systems that focus on what’s happening inside the vehicle. They focus on systems that could help mitigate potential harm and/or danger that could be caused by a driver acting erratically (caused by a drunk driver, for instance).

Safety regulators also use the data to craft new rules for improving pedestrian safety, and Gainey said having a close working relationship with the data provides insights that can be used to create rules and make a real difference in the field.

As part of the Fall 2021 Unified Agenda, which is a public roadmap for potential future rulemaking, the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA have indicated they are likely to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which will recommend requirements to protect pedestrians upon impact with vehicle hoods further. This is designed to be done in coordination with Global Technical Regulation No. 9, the ninth part of a United Nations agreement from 1998 that standardized car safety guidelines across the globe and specifically deals with pedestrian safety.

Additionally, as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Biden in November 2021, Congress is mandating that NHTSA issue public notice and comment regarding both crash protection and crash avoidance technologies for future vehicles, a move that could see the number of pedestrian deaths decrease significantly.

Meanwhile, the government also has bills on the table to consider harmonizing the United States’ performance requirements with other countries and unions (e.g. Britain and the European Union). According to Gainey, Volkswagen hopes to use the information derived from their numerous case studies to help the company work with VIPA in improving the safety of all road users, not just those behind the wheel.