From the wilds of northern Ontario comes cutting-edge technology for pedestrians seeking safe passage across America's streets.

The Ursus Mark VI, a modern-day suit of armor designed to provide protection from bear attacks, features:

  • A titanium exterior linked by chain mail (for joint flexibility).

  • A battery-powered twin-fan ventilation system.

  • Even a black box (to record the wearer's last words in the unlikely event of malfunction).

Don't laugh. Troy Hurtubise, its inventor and star of the acclaimed 1996 documentary Project Grizzly, donned the duds and survived a shotgun blast, a 150-ft. fall, an assault by bat-wielding bikers and 18 collisions with a pickup traveling 30 mph (48 km/h).

But mass marketing could prove problematic. Ursus Mark VI weighs 147 lbs. (67 kg).

So, if pedestrians can't be made harder, why not make cars and trucks softer? Driven by the European Enhanced Vehicle Safety Committee (EEVC), overseas regulators are pondering just that.

While automakers have pushed for voluntary measures to address pedestrian safety, Europe — plagued by about 7,000 pedestrian fatalities per year — is expected to mandate pedestrian-friendly vehicle designs within seven years.

Washington, however, appears to favor a less-intrusive approach. U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta says pedestrian safety is a priority “from a research and development perspective.”

A preliminary report compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. shows 4,727 pedestrians were killed by cars in the U.S. last year.

What are automakers doing in anticipation of EU legislation? They're taking existing technology and turning it inside-out.

“Everything we've been doing is to protect the person in the car — and to avoid an accident,” says Susan Cischke, Ford Motor Co. vice president-environmental and safety engineering. “This, now, becomes another requirement — to look at what happens outside of the car.”

And understanding pedestrian impacts requires researchers to consider a different set of variables than those that affect vehicle occupants during collisions. Unlike the occupant scenario where body positions are generally uniform, pedestrian attitudes vary widely. But researchers have discovered this constant about the point of impact:

“You just, sort of, naturally wrap around,” says Ford physicist Stephen Rouhana. “Your body wants to stay stationary. The vehicle sort of comes in, kind of like a cow-catcher on a train. It catches you. And as it catches you, you rotate about your center of gravity and you end up striking with your shoulder or your chest, depending on how you're oriented initially.”

Then the most perilous possibility: head injury.

Carmakers have considered materials-based solutions, experimenting with composite construction to absorb impacts. But sheet metal is more forgiving, Mr. Rouhana says.

Later this year Toyota Motor Corp. will introduce impact-absorbing bumpers and fenders to combat annual pedestrian death totals in Japan of about 3,000. Mazda Motor Corp. showed similar technology on its ’99 ASV-2 concept that featured a bumper supported by a ribbed crumple zone of polypropylene. The carmaker's aim was to reduce leg injuries.

Toyota also will introduce this year in Japan a rearranged engine compartment that offers added space between components. This is intended to cushion pedestrians in the event of collision — a significant step, because research suggests components such as windshield wiper motors and hood mounts create hard spots on a vehicle's skin.

“We've shown that we can pretty dramatically reduce the head injury criterion, which is a measure of the acceleration of the head during the impact,” says Ford's Mr. Rouhana.

How? With air bags.

“We want to try and manage the energy of that interaction,” Mr. Rouhana says. “So we have one air bag that deploys above the bumper and comes up and then over the hood of the vehicle.”

Then two air bags deploy at the base of the windshield to further reduce the risk of head injury.

“The cowl air bags would be deployed based on contact with the vehicle. The over-the-hood bag isn't quite ready for prime time because we need a sensor that predicts an impact is about to occur.

“Radar sensors today are not entirely 100% predictable. There are some issues with them … I don't see the over-the-hood air bag coming in the next few years — until sensors are developed.

“The cowl air bag, it still remains to be seen … There may be other things in the future. But right now, this is the direction that we're going,” Mr. Rouhana says.

Adds Ms. Cischke: “A lot has to do with actually designing the exterior of the vehicle.”

The EU's pending pedestrian safety regulations may even affect vehicle styling because an EECV study shows fewer fatalities have occurred since automakers began favoring smooth lines over boxy designs.

Only time will tell if the innovations bear fruit.