Every time there is major loss in life or the number of incidents involving specific similarities increases, the results are evaluated for ways to eliminate that danger.
Sometimes it is operator error that is looked at, and laws are made to reduce operator error to acceptable means.
Other times there are engineering reasons for the accident that are correctable and the manufacturer does not wish to spend the money on the corrections. In that case, a recall is mandated and the repairs are made.
Insurance companies insure for injury, property damage repairs, and a host of other things. The higher the cost of the damage, the higher cost for a pay out and the higher the cost to the consumer.
Insurance companies are many times the leaders in forcing the changes needed to make cars safer by testing them and then posting the results of those tests. The higher the safety rating, the lower the insurance cost and therefore the more likely that customers will purchase a car that is more safe for their family and costs less to insure.
Car companies and legislatures react to those things. The legislature then passes laws that mandate specific things that make the car companies include the proven safety features.
It is interesting to note that seat belts were first introduced in cars with the Studebaker back in the 1940s and 1950s. The public did not like them and cut them out of the cars.
Later in the '70s, seat belts were mandated in federal laws.
Sometimes good ideas take a long time to become laws.
In direct response to the question regarding the safety of pedestrians in car crashes it has to be said that in recent years crash engineers have begun to use design principles that have proved successful in protecting car occupants to develop vehicle design concepts that reduce the likelihood of injuries to pedestrians.
Most pedestrian deaths occur due to the head injury resulting from the hard impact of the head against the stiff hood or windshield. In addition, although usually non-fatal, injuries to the lower limb (usually to the knee joint and long bones) are the most common cause of disability due to pedestrian crashes. A Frontal protection System (FPS) is a device fitted to the front end of a vehicle to protect both pedestrians and cyclists who are involved in a front end collision with a vehicle. Car design has been shown to have a large impact on the scope and severity of pedestrian injury in car accidents.
The hood of most vehicles is usually fabricated from sheet metal, which is a compliant energy absorbing structure and thus poses a comparatively small threat. Most serious head injuries occur when there is insufficient clearance between the hood and the stiff underlying engine components. A gap of approximately 10 cm is usually enough to allow the pedestrian’s head to have a controlled deceleration and a significantly reduced risk of death.
Furthermore, BMW is conducting research with a system that would equipp pedestrians and others with transponders that alert passing cars to their presence - even if they can't be seen by the human eye. The technology is called AMULETT - the German acronym for “Active mobile accident avoidance and mitigation of accident effects through cooperative data acquisition and tracking technology”.
The system works on similar principles to an RFID tag, exchanging data with an on-board computer on the AMULETT-equipped car. Because the non-car end of the system is so light and robust, it could in theory be incorporated into any number of existing daily carry items, such as school bags, cellular phones or brief cases. Such ubiquity could mean a huge decrease in pedestrian traffic accidents.
According to the 2006 figures from Germany’s Federal Statistical Office, 48 percent of accident victims between the age of six and 14 ran onto the road without looking out for traffic. 25 percent of accidents involving children happened when they suddenly appeared from behind a visual barrier.
The system that BMW is developing would alert the driver that a child or an adult is likely to step on the road in front of their car so that they can adjust their speed and be more alert.
Also, you are right, the car companies are doing their best to advance their pedestrian protection systems, in part because the law will require tham to do so.
It's likely that the future design changes we see on vehicles in the U.S. will be driven by safety standards overseas. Both Japan and Europe recently instituted more pedestrian safety standards.