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Tragic victims of SUV menace


Jeep rode roughshod over car in wreck at Fulton St. and Stuyvesant Ave. in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

When you walk the streets of New York, watch out for an increasingly deadly, four-wheeled menace. Sport-utility vehicles - like the popular Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer - mowed down one out of every five pedestrians killed in the city last year.

And the gas-guzzling monsters are killing more pedestrians each year, the Daily News has found. As an increasing number of hulking SUVs hit New York streets in the last five years, their share of pedestrian deaths almost doubled, federal data reveal.

"If SUVs can't be made safer, they shouldn't be on the road at all," Lorraine Gibson said after her husband, John Arnett, 57, was run down by a Grand Cherokee last week outside their Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, home.

"No one should be driving them if they can't be safer," said Gibson, 55. "They are running over and killing innocent people. It took a good man's life."

Pedestrians are more than twice as likely to die when they're hit by a big, boxy SUV than by a smaller sedan, an analysis of national crash data reveals.

In the city, SUVs comprised fewer than 15% of passenger vehicles last year - but were responsible for about 26% of the pedestrian deaths from passenger vehicles, according to federal crash reports and motor vehicle registration data from R.L. Polk & Co.

And while the total number of pedestrian deaths has fallen 18% in the last five years in the city, the number of deaths caused by SUVs leaped 27%.

"Why do we need these big monsters on the road?" asked an anguished Bobby Capobianco, 63, of Staten Island. "When is America going to learn?"

His 85-year-old mother, Ann Capobianco, was crossing New Dorp Lane last week when a passing Chevy TrailBlazer mowed her down and killed her.

Her grieving family said the great-grandmother of 14 was healthy and spry and talked about wanting to live to 100 - but had no chance against the 2-ton SUV.

"My mom's only about 5-foot-1 and 100 pounds," said daughter Margaret Darcy, 62. "I don't think she really had a chance."

Much of the problem can be traced to the design of SUVs, experts say. Cars tend to hit pedestrians in the legs, throwing them onto the hoods but not causing as many head injuries. SUVs, however, tend to hit pedestrians higher, in their chests and heads, and throw them forward, causing more serious injuries. So a person struck by a car has a 5% chance of dying - but that jumps to 11% for someone struck by an SUV, a national study of fatalities showed.

"Pedestrians who are struck by SUVs are at a significantly higher risk of death or injury than pedestrians struck by cars," said Clay Gabler, a Virginia Tech engineering professor who developed those figures. "These are vehicles that have very abrupt, blunt, nonaerodynamic front ends."

The NYPD would not discuss dangers associated with SUVs, and could not tell The News how many pedestrians had been killed by SUVs this year.

Newsweek editor Thomas Masland, 55, who had vowed he would never buy an SUV because they were dangerous gas-guzzlers, was among the many victims.

The veteran correspondent, who had safely covered wars around the world, stepped off an upper West Side curb last month and was killed by a passing Volkswagen Touareg.

"He was appalled" to see so many SUVs on the road, his wife, Gina, 53, said. "We talked so much about SUVs, and then my husband is killed by one."

Some pedestrian advocates and car experts also believe SUV drivers feel insulated behind the wheel of the outsized machines - making them more of a hazard to others.

"When you get that sense of invulnerability, you drive differently," said Philip Reed, consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. "You're sitting higher. You're less connected to the road."

Yet that sense of safety inside an SUV can be deceiving: Studies have shown that driving an SUV is more dangerous than driving a car, because the greater protection is outweighed by the higher risk of rolling over.

"All things being equal, pound for pound, SUVs typically have a higher death rate than passenger cars," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Along with pedestrians, SUVs also are dangerous to smaller cars: When someone dies in a crash between a car and an SUV, the victim was riding inside the car 81% of the time, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Anyone you hit - whether it's a car or a person - you're more likely to kill them" in an SUV, said Marina Wain, 35, of Rochelle Park, N.J., whose 69-year-old father, George Barbagiannis, was run down by an SUV on the upper West Side in April.

"SUVs don't have the same range of vision," she said. "I think they're socially irresponsible."

With Jonathan Lemire,Tony Sclafani and Maureen Seaberg

Making hulks less of a hazard

SUVs are bigger and taller than cars - making them more dangerous to people in their path. So several automakers are changing the shape of their SUVs to make them safer.

The traditional boxy SUVs tend to hit pedestrians in the head and chest, and then throw them backward to the ground - causing serious, if not fatal, injuries, studies show.

Honda and Volvo are reshaping the front of their SUVs to give them a lower, more aerodynamic profile.

That makes pedestrians hit by the redesigned SUVs more likely to fall onto the hood. To help cushion the violent blow, the two automakers also are leaving several inches of empty space between the hood and engine.

"Most fatalities result from head injuries, and so our efforts have focused on making it so people can survive," said Honda spokesman Chris Naughton, whose company has even developed a pedestrian crash dummy.

Volvo installed a new engine in its XC90 SUV so it would have 3 1/2 inches of clearance under the hood for the same reason, said spokesman Dan Johnston.

Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the improvements should be lauded - even though they companies are fixing their own mistakes.

"These vehicles shouldn't be so high to begin with," said Claybrook, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen. "The manufacturers should have paid attention to this long ago"

Adam Lisberg

Local family, friends deal with kids' traffic deaths

By Jason Massad/Staff Writer

Ashley Cowan, 15, and her brother, Chad, 11, were killed Saturday in a vehicle accident. Numerous fundraisers are planned to aid the family with burial costs and a memorial fund has been established to help the family. (Courtesy photos)

A Vacaville woman involved in a tragic car accident in Arizona over the weekend was expected to be released Monday from the hospital.
Horribly, however, Lori Cowan and her husband, Scott Cowan, will be planning the funeral of their two children upon her release from St. Joseph's hospital in Phoenix, say friends of the family.

"I don't know how much of the grief and devastation has sunk in," said Kathy Schuster, a local Realtor and Lori Cowan's boss. "We're all rallying around her."

The Cowans children, Chad Cowan, 11, and his sister, Ashley Cowan, 15, died Saturday after the sports utility vehicle their mother was driving on Interstate 10 west of Phoenix rolled off the freeway and flipped five times.

Lori Cowan was seriously injured in the crash and could face a lengthy recovery as a result of a blow to the head. Scott Cowan, 41, escaped injury in the accident.

The family was returning to Vacaville Saturday morning from a brief trip to Phoenix to visit Lori's parents, a frequent sojourn for the family, friends said.

The accident occurred about eight miles west of Tonopah, a small town in Arizona. Lori swerved her SUV to avoid trouble in the roadway, family friends have heard.

On top of the unspeakable tragedy, the family is now struggling financially to arrange for the transport and burial in Vacaville of their

two children, Schuster said. Numerous fundraisers are planned and a memorial fund has been established to aid the family in its time of need, Schuster said.

"They need help," she said from her real estate office Monday. "This is nothing that is expected to happen in somebody's life - having to handle the burial of two children."

Schuster was joined this week by other friends of the Cowan family who have been searching for ways to lend a hand.

Lori Lee, Chad Cowan's junior basketball coach, paid a visit Monday to the family's home near Alamo Elementary School in downtown Vacaville.

She propped flowers at the front door, as a gesture of sympathy that will greet the family upon its return.

Lee said the Cowans are active in Vacaville youth sports and and are well known at The Father's House, their church.

Zack, Lee's son and a school buddy and basketball teammate of Chad Cowan, has been helping his mother cope with the loss.

"He keeps telling me, 'I've got to think of happier things or I will be sad all the time.' " Lee said. "It's so fresh, you know?"

Lee remembers Chad Cowan as a raw basketball talent who was beginning to grasp the fundamentals of the sport.

The youth already was accomplished in football and baseball, recently making the local Little League All Star team, Lee said.

"You could tell he was one heck of an athlete. You could just see it," she said. "He was my little scrapper. If I told him to go get a ball he would go get it."

Lori Cowan, meanwhile, is described by co-workers as someone with an indefatigably positive attitude which infects those around her.

In her free time, she coaches a cheerleading squad associated with a local youth football team.

Her spirit of community service is matched by her husband, Scott Cowan, who recently coached his son's youth football team.

"You can't meet a nicer sweeter couple," Schuster said. "They are so loved for their loving and giving to this community."

Those who would like to help the family can do so in several ways.

• Funds can be donated to the Ashley and Chad Cowan Memorial Fund at branches of the Bank of The West. The account number is 254259559.

• Checks can be dropped off at Schuster Real Estate at 912 Merchant St.

• A car wash is planned from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. this Saturday at Vacaville High School.

• A benefit concert is planned from 5 to 9 p.m. Aug. 16 at Food Fair on Orchard Avenue.

For more information call Schuster Real Estate at 447-3741.

Jason Massad can be reached at county@thereporter.com.

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