Killer Grilles

The menacing metal bars attached to the front of many urban SUVs may make drivers feel like Crocodile Dundee -- but they also may pose a lethal danger to pedestrians.

| Wed Aug. 9, 2000 3:00 AM EDT

The phenomenon is, quite literally, growing: SUVs are getting bigger, and as Americans' appetite for hulking off-road vehicles expands, so does their appetite for macho SUV accessories.

Marketed as Blazers, Trackers, Explorers, and Mountaineers , few SUVs are ever actually taken off-road; most are used for the same mundane errands that a traditional passenger car is bought for. Nonetheless, a growing number of SUV owners are taking their wilderness fantasy a bit further by buying "bull bars," or "grille guards," metal bars mounted on the vehicle's front. (The guards were invented in Australia, where they are affectionately called "roo bars," to protect a truck's front end in a collision with a kangaroo.) Some sets of bull bars are modest; others look big and elaborate enough to roast a sheep on.

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But the fad could prove deadly -- not just to kangaroos, but to pedestrians. A growing body of research indicates the bars heighten the danger in car-on-pedestrian crashes, and have caused scores of avoidable injuries and several deaths in recent years.

There are no central statistics kept on bull-bar sales, since many are not sold by carmakers themselves but by auto-accessory dealers. As any city dweller can attest, however, the numbers are substantial. Armor Rex, a California auto-parts dealer, estimates that they alone sell 10,000 a year in the US.

When a normal passenger car hits an adult pedestrian, the person is run not over but under, sliding over the hood and windshield. It's not an experience most of us would envy, but experts say it's the least bad outcome. Something much more dangerous happens when a pedestrian is hit by the flat, rigid front of an SUV: The body is punched away from, then under the vehicle. And if the SUV has bull bars fitted to its radiator grille, this effect is intensified. The force of the collision is concentrated on the relatively small area of the grill's bars, meaning a relatively minor accident can have drastic consequences.

A 1998 study by Australia's University of Adelaide found that the damage to a child's head when struck by a vehicle equipped with a small-diameter steel bull bar was 10 to 15 times worse than damage inflicted by a vehicle without one. "In practical terms, a pedestrian hit by a vehicle equipped with a steel bull bar will be seriously hurt or killed at speeds much lower than those that are usually fatal," said Jack McLean, one of the study's authors.

"The bull bar concentrates and magnifies the force of the collision in a tiny area," British Member of Parliament Paul Flynn explained. "It's like a stiletto heel. They turn trivial accidents into serious ones, and serious accidents into fatal ones."

Since 1994, Flynn has helped lead a so-far unsuccessful campaign to ban bull bars in Britain and Europe, which was fuelled by several cases in which children were killed by SUVs equipped with bull bars travelling at speeds at which the collision wouldn't normally have been fatal.

"Research from Germany shows that 95 percent of children would be expected to survive the impact of a crash at about 20 miles per hour," Flynn told the British House of Commons in 1995, "but a vehicle fitted with bull bars would inflict life-threatening injuries on all children if it were travelling at 12 miles per hour, and that they could possibly die even at 10 miles per hour."

A study by the British government's own Transport Research Laboratory found that there were 40 additional serious injuries and at least two deaths attributable to bull bars in the UK in 1994, the year they were studying. A similar paper published in 1996 by Australia's Federal Office of Road Safety could not identify bull bars as the definitive cause of death, but found that they were probably involved in 20 percent of pedestrian deaths there.

Nonetheless, in North America, the potential danger posed by bull bars has so far drawn little attention. Part of the reason is that the US and Canada have fewer pedestrians than the UK. In both the US and Canada, pedestrians make up about 13 percent of traffic-related deaths, compared to 27 percent in the more densely populated UK. Unlike European governments, North American governments focus primarily on what happens to vehicle occupants when studying crash safety. And in fact, bull bars can actually minimize the damage to the other vehicle in a collision, by pushing the second car away like a snowplow, says Julie Rochman, spokesperson for the US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Human bodies, however, are another story. "Depending on their design, it's certainly logical that it could be true" that bull bars pose an extra hazard to pedestrians, allowed Sara Tatchio, spokesperson for Ford Motor Company.

"At this point, it's not something that's become an issue in North America," said General Motors Canada spokesman Richard James. In the meantime, he said, GM is selling bull bars mainly to people who actually need them in the wilds. GM Canada's Web site, however, gives aesthetics equal billing with protection, and doesn't mention the wilderness at all. "Protect your grille from damage caused by low impacts while giving your vehicle a rugged look," the site tells potential SUV buyers checking out accessories.

Auto makers have resisted the idea of taking pedestrian safety into account for years, charged Joan Claybrook, who headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration between l977 and l98l.

"Industry hates the idea because they don't want anything to interfere with their styling options," she said. "They believe that any regulation that limits the way that you can design the front end of a car ... could severely limit the way that they design the exterior of the car, which they view as being a critical factor in sales."

"It has in the past been difficult to balance designing attractive, appealing cars with pedestrian-safety issues," admitted Tatchio. But the company does take pedestrian safety into account, she insists, "and will even more in the future."

In other parts of the world, consumers are taking the alarming research to heart, spawning an unlikely cottage industry: faux bull bars. Australia's Team Poly is doing a brisk trade in bull bars made from soft, compressible plastic instead of metal, which now sell in more than 100 auto parts stores in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and some Asian countries.

North American car manufacturers might want to take note. If they don't start paying more attention to pedestrian-safety issues, predicts Barry Wellar, a University of Ottawa geography professor who specializes in traffic safety issues, "automobile companies are going to end up with the same kind of class-action suits as the tobacco companies."