Not All Pedestrian Detection Systems Do a Good Job

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Pedestrian detection systems are designed to reduce pedestrian fatalities and injuries. They’re increasingly common in today’s cars, but while they all claim to prevent collisions, a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study shows not every system does the job well.

  • The IIHS found pedestrian detection systems don’t always work as expected.
  • The best-performing cars weren’t always luxury vehicles.
  • Although these systems are beneficial, the driver still needs to pay attention at all times.

The IIHS rated the pedestrian detection systems in 16 midsize cars from a variety of automakers. Tests looked at how well vehicles stopped in a variety of situations and were run at twice at two speeds. The tests included an adult stepping into the street with an unobstructed view, a child darting out into the street from behind two parked cars, and an adult at the edge of the road in the travel lane looking away from traffic.

Which cars performed well?

In these scenarios commonly encountered in the real world, the field of entrants earned mixed results. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Nissan, and Subaru each had a vehicle that earned a top rating of Superior. Six vehicles earned an Advanced rating and the final four vehicles earned either a Basic rating or received no credit at all.

It’s not just the IIHS that’s found inconsistencies in how these systems work. A study conducted by AAA found similar problematic results. The technology was especially challenged when a pedestrian crossed while a vehicle was turning right or once it was dark. In these scenarios, the systems failed every time.

While pedestrian detection systems do save lives, the number of pedestrian fatalities is increasing. The Governor’s Highway Safety Association showed pedestrian fatalities last year were at their highest level since 1990. The exact cause is unclear, but experts point to the increase in the number of large vehicles on the road and the increased amount of time people spend driving as possible reasons for the increase.

Pedestrian detection systems can help reduce those fatalities, but only if they work. Given how often they fail to work in testing, a driver who isn’t paying attention and instead relies on a car to stop itself could be in trouble. There’s a false sense of security imparted by having this technology on a car because it may not work as expected.

IIHS Pedestrian Detection Testing Subaru The Subaru Outback earned a Superior rating in IIHS testing. (Photo: IIHS)

Technology has its limits

The key to using any advanced driver assistance technology is knowing how it works and its limitations. Adaptive cruise control, for example, maintains a set speed or distance from another car and adjusts with the flow of traffic. It sounds simple, yet it doesn’t work the same way in every vehicle.

Other systems are so inconsistent in how they operate that drivers are reluctant to trust them at all. Lane-centering, which prevents drivers from drifting out of their lane, has proved especially frustrating. Not only do drivers feel like the systems don’t keep them correctly centered, often they aren’t even able to tell if the systems are operating at all.

Lane-centering and adaptive cruise control are features drivers can experience every day. That makes them easier to learn and increases the chances they’ll be used correctly. Over time, a driver can get comfortable with how these and some other advanced driver assistance features work.

The challenge with pedestrian detection systems is that, hopefully, they’re not something experienced every day. There’s no way for a driver to get used to how it works because it’s only activated in an emergency. If the driver assumes it will stop the car when anyone walks in front of them no matter the time of day or conditions, then that confidence may be misplaced.


While advanced driver assistance systems like pedestrian detection can help prevent collisions, they are not a substitute for human drivers. The inconsistencies in how well they work from one car to the next and even in different driving scenarios makes them unreliable. In a car equipped with the latest technologies, drivers still need to pay attention behind the wheel.

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