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Road safety: protecting the most vulnerable


Cyclists and pedestrians are in greater danger than ever, prompting Allianz to call for compulsory helmets for cyclists and new protection systems.

Safety helmets were high on the agenda at the 2013 Allianz Auto Day in June at the Allianz Center for Technology (AZT) near Munich, which was dedicated to road safety issues, with a call for helmets to be made compulsory for cyclists and for “active pedestrian protection” systems to be installed in vehicles.

Severin Moser, member of the Board of Management of Allianz Germany, reminded representatives from the worlds of politics, the auto industry, accident assistance and sport that “a significant reduction in the number of people injured or killed on the roads will not be possible without paying special attention to pedestrians and cyclists.”

The number of cyclists and pedestrians killed across the world rose by over 60 percent between 1990 and 2010. Children and elderly people are in particular danger. The WHO came to this conclusion as part of its Global Burden of Disease project. When ranked amongst all causes of death, traffic-related fatalities have moved from tenth place in 1990 to eighth place in 2010, and will be the fifth biggest cause of death by 2030. Allianz reported on this in the Allianz Risk Pulse on Mobility and Road Safety Trends (see link below). Around 41% of all fatalities in traffic accidents globally are cyclists or pedestrians.

Nevertheless, there are still too few cyclists wearing helmets, believes Allianz. Regardless of age, the percentage of people in Germany wearing a helmet stands at just 11%. Helmets are not seen as cool, they are an irritation, you have to carry them around, and they don’t actually prevent collisions between cyclists and motorists.

But they are very effective in avoiding severe head injuries, according to the Allianz report, which notes that over 40% of serious cycling accidents result in serious head injuries. “The probability of suffering brain damage without a helmet is over double that for someone wearing a helmet,” says Moser.

Yet very few countries have made helmet wearing compulsory. One of these is Finland. Some US states have regulations targeted at children and young people. In most countries, however, the compulsory wearing of helmets is a political issue. Each new law expands the remit of the authorities and some people object to that intrusion.

Others point out that compulsory helmets won’t prevent accidents happening in the first place. Many argue for lower speed limits and restrictions on heavy vehicles in towns and cities, as well as more dedicated bicycle lanes. However, if cycle lanes do not exist, if reckless road use is common, and if there is limited cooperation between road-users, technology must be part of the answer.

This is where an active pedestrian protection system in vehicles comes in. The AZT is a member of the ’vFSS - Vorausschauende Frontschutzsysteme’ (predictive frontal protection systems) working group, whose other members are representatives from the automotive industry and research institutes. “Allianz aims to promote the establishment of an internationally harmonized testing standard for the future, which reflects the most significant real-life accident scenarios for pedestrians,” says Christoph Lauterwasser, head of the AZT.

How would it work? Experts distinguish between passive and active protection systems. The passive systems include installations on the car itself which relate to the characteristic points of impact for the head, the windshield and the hood. Technicians are currently looking into using the hood as a crumple zone and external airbags.

The active systems include sensor and radar systems which can recognize pedestrians and cyclists in conditions of low visibility, and trigger an emergency brake or warning. To do this, the systems have to learn to differentiate between, say, trees and human beings, or between people waiting for a bus at the side of the road and someone about to cross the road.

The developers of airbags, ABS, ESP and other driver assistance systems have already proven that such complex challenge can be successfully overcome, thereby improving road safety. In Germany, the number of fatal incidents among motorized road-users decreased from over 12,000 in 1953 to less than 4,000 in 2010. At the same time, the number of cars on the roads increased from 4.8 million to over 52 million.

By approaching road safety from the perspective of pedestrians and cyclists, Allianz and its partners hope to achieve similar results.

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