LOS ANGELES – Cycling on picturesque Mulholland Highway through bucolic, tree-studded hills, Milt Olin probably never saw the car that killed him.
A distracted sheriff’s deputy on patrol accidentally slammed his cruiser into Olin’s bike from behind, sending him crashing into the car’s windshield. Olin died at the scene.
It’s the kind of nightmare scenario that haunts anyone who bikes or runs on public roads, and the latest government figures show the carnage is getting worse.
The number of bicyclists killed last year shot up 10% to what probably will be the highest level since 1988, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Pedestrian deaths rose 4%. Based on that percentage, they are likely to have hit the highest level since 1990.
The number of auto drivers and passengers killed in accidents slid for the third straight year, down 1% compared with 2017.
The cyclist and pedestrian death percentage estimates, a sharp reversal from declines the previous year, underscore a troubling trend: While cars have been getting safer for occupants, they remain potentially deadly for those outside the vehicle.
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“It’s much safer for the people inside” the car, said Bill Nesper, executive director for the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group. “It’s a serious thing because it’s this steady stream of bicyclists and pedestrians being killed. It’s a tragedy we as a country seem to have come to accept.”
Automakers, backed by government safety regulators, have filled cars with features to protect passengers in crashes, such as air bags and advanced child restraints. Improvements to protect walkers and bikers have emerged more slowly.
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A handful of automakers rolled out pedestrian and bicycle detection as part of their automatic braking systems, but most haven’t. When they do offer it, it’s sometimes an extra-cost option despite its potential to save lives.
European regulators enacted tougher pedestrian safety rules. In the USA, “they haven’t been doing enough,” said David Friedman, vice president for advocacy for Consumer Reports and former interim director of the NHTSA. “For years, it’s been like pulling teeth to really think about and move forward on pedestrian safety technology.”
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Though the NHTSA doesn’t point to causes of the leap in fatalities, experts have pointed repeatedly to the problem of distracted driving and the growing popularity of SUVs, which can be more deadly than cars because they smash directly into victims, instead of pushing them up onto the hood or windshield.
In a pact that headed off the need for government action, 20 automakers agreed three years ago to voluntarily equip all their models with automatic emergency braking by Sept. 1, 2022.
Friedman said he thinks it’s time to go further by requiring pedestrian and bicyclist detection in vehicles. Most emergency braking systems are intended to prevent damage to other vehicles and injury to their passengers, but he said the consequences of hitting unprotected cyclists and pedestrians are more severe.
Bicycle detection might have saved Olin, 65, an entertainment industry attorney and father of two. Olin was out for a quick spin when he was struck by the patrolling sheriff’s deputy in 2013. It was a sunny, clear day.
“He just went for a short ride,” his widow, Louise, recalled. When he didn’t come home, she went looking for him and came to a roadblock, soon discovering he had been the victim of the accident.
The district attorney’s investigation showed that the deputy was distracted by the squad car’s computer screen as he drove at 48 mph and didn’t notice the helmeted bicyclist. The deputy’s car swerved into the bike lane, flipping Olin into the air and causing severe head injuries.
The tragedy motivated Louise Olin to create a charity, the Milt Olin Foundation, dedicated to education about the dangers of distracted driving. She hands out smartphone mounts that attach to cars’ dashboard vents, so drivers can keep their eyes on the road instead of looking down at their phones.
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Pressure on automakers
One boost for the spread of pedestrian and cyclist detection technology: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety will require automakers to have a high-functioning pedestrian detection system as standard equipment on a model in order for it to earn the most coveted rating, Top Safety Pick Plus, starting in 2020.
The IIHS estimates automatic emergency braking will prevent 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries by 2025. And the systems that are out there are getting better.
Volvo said it continues to improve the detection system it introduced for pedestrians in 2010 and for bicycles in 2013. It moved the sensor from the grille, where it can be blinded by snow or rain, to behind the windshield.
Making improvements is not easy, said Jan Ivarsson, a safety expert for Volvo. The system has to step in if it appears a car is about to strike a walker or biker, “but you don’t want false interventions,” he said.
Volvo said it has biker and pedestrian intervention standard across its lineup.
Toyota has pedestrian protection standard in 20 of its models or their hybrid variants but has bicycle detection on only Corolla, including its hatchback and hybrid versions, and the Mirai hydrogen-powered vehicle.
Subaru’s EyeSight safety system is so highly regarded that the IIHS found in 2017 that it reduced pedestrian crash claims by 35%. Though it is standard equipment on the Ascent, Forester and the 2020 Legacy and Outback models, it is still an $845 option on Impreza and Crosstrek.
Research continues on other solutions. Automakers shelved the notion of installing air bags on the front of cars to try to protect cyclists or pedestrians in crashes, but they are exploring other ways to save bikers and walkers from serious injury or death. In Europe, automakers such as Volvo engineer hoods and fenders to more easily flex if they strike a biker or walker.
Development continues on systems that would allow vehicles to electronically talk to each other in traffic, including warnings about hazards ahead such as bikers or walkers. Artificial intelligence could be built into cyclist and pedestrian detection systems, making them more accurate and allowing vehicles to react faster, said Wade Newton, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group.
For many, such as the Olin family, improvements in auto technology and the prevention of distracted driving can’t come soon enough.
“Even people crossing the crosswalk – I can’t think of one person who is not vulnerable,” Louise Olin said. “I try to make that point to people. It’s not just cyclists. It’s everybody.”