Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety Technology Exists... So Why Aren't We Using It?


Pedestrians crossing the road at intersection.
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Around the world, cities have been trying to figure out how to solve the problem of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. The risk to these road users remains high, even as safety technologies become increasingly sophisticated, and in spite of many cities launching Vision Zero programs that aim to reduce the number of such fatalities to, well… zero.


While driving has arguably become safer in the past decade, with new technologies being created and implemented all the time, the opposite has been true for pedestrians and cyclists. In the United States in particular, pedestrian and cyclists fatalities are actually on the rise.


In an article for Bloomberg City Lab, David Zipper argues that the technology that could improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists already exists… we’re just not using it.


Zipper points out that certain technologies, like speed governors and breathalyzers, could be a standard feature of vehicles, and could make a huge difference to pedestrian and cyclist safety, but are met with a great deal of resistance by both the industry and its lobbyists, and by individual drivers themselves.


“[One] safety technology is the speed governor, which prevents a driver from accelerating above a specific threshold. Also known as speed limiters, these devices could dramatically improve street safety, especially in urban areas. A recent survey of academic studies concluded that a pedestrian has a 95% chance of surviving a collision with a vehicle traveling at 19 mph, but only a 10% chance if the vehicle is traveling at 50 mph.”

Speed governor technology would help get to the root of many pedestrian and cyclist fatalities – the unequal power between different forms of travel that is caused by speed. Traveling on foot or by bike, you have little protection against a hunk of metal, especially when that hunk of metal is heading for impact at 30 or 40 mph. As demonstrated by the stat above, accelerated speeds spell almost certain tragedy for pedestrians and cyclists in a collision situation.


Speed governors are by no means new technology. The technology has been possible for almost a century, dating back to 1923 when residents in Cincinnati voted to require vehicles to be equipped with speed regulators but were defeated by a massive lobbying effort on the part of the automotive industry.


Zipper argues that the reason technologies that could save pedestrian and cyclist lives have not been adopted is because of the importance of individualism in the United States and its emphasis within the auto consumer market.


“Automobiles have long been marketed and purchased as reflections of the driver’s identity… Having bought into this automotive narrative of individualism, many drivers recoil against anything perceived as a threat to freedom of movement – regardless of the lives that could be saved.”

Speed governors are one such example. While they could be key to reducing pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, requiring that they be used in every vehicle would limit the control that drivers have behind the wheel, and this lack of control is something that, historically, both the industry and consumers alike have pushed back against.


Another example is the breathalyzer. As Zipper points out, their use is already required in many states for drivers who have a record of drunk driving. But the suggestion that they became widely adopted in new vehicles gets many people’s backs up against the wall, both because of its association with those who have a criminal record and because of its perceived intrusion on a driver’s control over their vehicle. And yet, many drivers with no record get behind the wheel drunk every day… and pedestrians and cyclists often pay the price.


Pedestrian detection technology does exist and is often a feature of newer models of vehicles, but as Zipper points out, are not always overly effective. The biggest number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities occur at night, but when it gets dark outside pedestrian detection technology effectively becomes useless.


While Zipper’s argument implies that nothing short of a shift in perspective on driving freedoms would be required to see such technologies implemented in new vehicles, he does see room for hope in some other big changes that have occurred lately, like the “expanding popularity of so-called complete streets” that have become a feature of COVID lockdown life. He hopes that such spaces will help grow awareness of the need to prioritize pedestrian and cyclist safety.


For more on this complicated issue, check out the original article in Bloomsbury City Lab.