July 24, 2024

Hybrid and electric cars are more likely to hit pedestrians than petrol or diesel vehicles, especially in towns and cities, according to an analysis of UK road traffic accidents.

Data from 32 billion miles of battery-powered car travel and 3 billion miles of gasoline and diesel car trips showed that mile-for-mile electric and hybrid cars are twice as likely to hit pedestrians as fossil fuel-powered cars, and three times more likely to do so in urban areas.

Why eco-friendly cars are more dangerous is unclear, but researchers suspect that a number of factors may be to blame. Drivers of electric cars tend to be younger and less experienced, and the vehicles are much quieter than cars with combustion engines, making it harder to hear, especially in towns and cities.

“Electric cars are a danger to pedestrians because they are less likely to be heard than petrol or diesel cars,” said Phil Edwards, first author of the study and professor of epidemiology and statistics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “The government must mitigate these risks if they are going to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars.”

“When you move to an electric car, remember this is a new kind of vehicle,” Edwards added. “They are much quieter than the old-fashioned cars, and pedestrians have learned to navigate roads by listening for traffic. Drivers of these vehicles must be extra careful.”

Road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among children and young adults in the UK, with pedestrians accounting for a quarter of all road deaths.

In 2017, a US Department of Transportation report found that electric and hybrid cars pose a 20% higher risk to pedestrians than petrol and diesel cars, and a 50% higher risk during low-speed movements such as turning, reversing, starting and stopping in traffic.

Edwards and his colleagues studied UK travel and road accident data from 2013 to 2017. Due to an archive problem, data from 2018 is not available. Their analysis included 916,713 casualties of which 120,197 were pedestrians. More than 96,000 were hit by a car or taxi.

Most vehicles on the road are petrol or diesel and these were involved in three-quarters of pedestrian collisions. But for the same distance traveled, battery-powered cars were more dangerous. The average annual rate of pedestrian accidents per 100m miles traveled was 5.16 for electric and hybrid cars compared to 2.4 for petrol and diesel cars, according to the study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

In rural settings, battery-powered cars were no more dangerous than petrol or diesel, but in towns and cities they were three times more likely to collide with pedestrians, the researchers found.

Since July 2019, all new hybrid and electric vehicles sold in Europe must have an acoustic vehicle warning system that emits a sound when the car is slowing down, but there are hundreds of thousands of electric cars on the road without the devices. “If the government makes sure these systems are installed in all electric vehicles and adapts them to older electric cars, that would be a good start,” Edwards said, adding that the Green Cross Code also “should probably be updated”.

Nicola Christie, professor of transport safety at UCL, said people relied on sound to judge the presence, speed and location of vehicles. “When these cues are missing, it can be very problematic for people in busy urban areas. The problem can be compounded for people with poor visual acuity or for children who find it difficult to judge the speed and distance of vehicles,” she said.

But a problem hearing electric cars is not the only problem. Electric cars tend to have quick acceleration and are usually much heavier, with some weighing twice their petrol equivalent, making stopping distances longer. “If the government plans to promote a transition to electric cars, it will pose some risk to pedestrians unless we take care of this,” Edwards said.

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