Thursday, July 15, 2004

For decades, automakers have been making vehicles safer for their occupants, largely because of the need to meet federal regulations. The result is that people riding in vehicles are protected by several tons of metal, restrained by seat belts and cushioned by air bags in a crash.

Pedestrians, on the other hand, have no such protections. But some automakers are increasingly working to make their vehicles more pedestrian-friendly should they have an unfortunate encounter.

Although pedestrian deaths don’t reach the level of almost 43,000 highway fatalities annually, last year 4,808 pedestrians were killed and 71,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That works out to a pedestrian death every 109 minutes and pedestrian injury every seven minutes.

While European governments are requiring automakers to design their vehicles to minimize the injuries to pedestrians starting in 2005, and the Japanese have proposed pedestrian safety regulations, the United States has no such regulations.

Despite this regulatory gap, some automakers, including Honda, are working pedestrian protections into their vehicles. The parts of a vehicle most unfriendly to pedestrians are the front bumper, the leading edge of the hood, the hood itself, the headlights, the windshield and the area surrounding the windshield.

As vehicles have become more aerodynamic, the hoods have been lowered, placing them closer to the engine. That cuts the vehicle’s resistance to the wind, reducing wind noise and improving fuel economy a bit, but it also makes a hard, unfriendly surface for a human head.

One of the key goals in pedestrian protection is to minimize the chance of head injuries, and one tactic automakers are using is to design hoods that act more as cushions than as concrete blocks.

In 1998, Honda introduced a new type of safety body that was designed to help protect pedestrians. First, the hood is designed to absorb impact energy with increased space between the hood and what engineers call “hard points” under it, such as the engine. Honda engineers aim for about 2 inches between the hood and engine. Hood hinges are also collapsible to absorb impact energy.

The top of the fender is another spot that can cause serious head injuries. Instead of bolting the fender directly to the frame, which results in a hard mounting point without any give, the new Honda design uses a crushable bracket to attach the fender to the frame, allowing the bracket to collapse or give.

The area just below the windshield, known as the cowl, is designed to crumple on impact to absorb energy.

The windshield wipers and the wiper pivots are designed to break off in a collision with a pedestrian’s head, making them less likely to crack or pierce the skull.

Last October, American Honda Motor Co. announced plans to apply advanced safety technologies — including features designed to reduce pedestrian injuries — to the full range of Honda and Acura products over the next several years.

But the company reports that many of its vehicles already have features aimed at protecting pedestrians, starting with the 2001 Honda Civic; 2002 Honda CR-V and Acura RSX; 2003 Honda Pilot, Element, Accord; and the 2004 Acura TSX and TL. While Honda may have the widest range of pedestrian-friendly models in the United States, it is not alone.

The hood of the 2003 Volvo XC90 sport utility was designed with 3.1 inches of clearance between the hood and the engine, so that the hood has space to give before a person’s head hits the engine.

The all-new Volvo S40 has an energy-absorbing structure ahead of the bumper to help reduce the risk of leg injuries. Also, the hood and front fenders are designed to absorb collision energy to reduce the risk of head injuries.

Mazda’s 2004 RX-8 sports car has what it calls a “shock cone aluminum hood” that is made up of an impact-absorbing structure — an inner panel across the surface of the RX-8’s aluminum hood.

These automakers will be far ahead in meeting the specified levels of pedestrian protection in the new European standards.

An unintended benefit of those new standards is that vehicles sold here will be safer for people who set foot off a curb — because those models are likely to arrive in the United States with the same design.

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