Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 | 2 a.m.
America’s appetite for big pickup trucks and SUVs is killing us.
Research shows that the growing number of these large vehicles, combined with their design, has helped fuel a massive increase in deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists across the country since 2009. Big trucks and SUVs also are more likely to cause fatalities in accidents involving passenger cars as well.
It’s an across-the-board problem, with Americans dying on sidewalks and crosswalks, in bike lanes, in their own vehicles and, in Las Vegas, even being run over while sitting at bus stops. And traffic safety experts say it needs a multifaceted solution that involves tighter safety regulations on vehicles, better road designs, greater use of technology and more.
The physics are gruesomely simple.
Big trucks and SUVs are not only heavier than passenger cars but tend to be tall and have blunt noses. When they strike a pedestrian or bicyclist, they often knock the person into other lanes of traffic or immediately to the ground, where they’re run over by the vehicle and perhaps others near it. And even if a pedestrian isn’t run over by the vehicle or by another one, the impact alone often causes devastating upper-body injuries. Worse, because of their weight, SUVs moving at traffic speeds release enormous kinetic energy on impact, making SUV accidents much more damaging than wrecks involving other vehicles.
By contrast, when a passenger car hits a pedestrian or a bicycle, the point of impact tends to be the legs and often the person rolls onto the hood. Pedestrians don’t as often end up under vehicles.
Accidents involving both types of vehicle can be fatal, and speed is a critical factor in both. In fact, pedestrians who are hit by any type of vehicle traveling 40 mph or faster die at a 90% rate.
But as reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2015, pedestrians are two to three times more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pickup than when struck by a passenger car.
In accidents involving passenger cars, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that SUVs are 28% more likely to cause fatalities and big trucks are nearly 160% more likely. Again, it’s a matter of physics — bigger vehicles cause more damage due to the weight difference and the fact that their bumpers are higher off the ground.
Erin Breen, a traffic safety researcher who directs the Vulnerable Road Users Project at UNLV, said she recently studied pedestrian fatality reports from Metro Police and found that about 50% involved SUVs or pickups. While some of those vehicles were smaller crossover models, she said other evidence shows large vehicles are playing an outsized role in pedestrian deaths in Las Vegas.
One indicator is an uptick in the number of accidents in which pedestrians are hit by more than one vehicle, Breen said.
Based on national research and her studies of local traffic accidents, she lists the proliferation of SUVs as one of the four major factors behind pedestrian fatalities in Las Vegas. Other main contributors include poor road design and high speed limits, which combine to make large vehicles even more deadly.
“When you have weight and height and then add the speed we allow people to travel, that’s what’s going to happen,” she said.
Disturbingly, government regulators and manufacturers have known about this problem for years but have done nothing about it. Pedestrian and bicycling advocates have encouraged “traffic calming” measures for decades, and in the cities where they’ve succeeded, there are fewer deaths. Plus, remarkably, travel times for all road users have decreased.
In fact, the auto industry is designing bigger, taller and more deadly vehicles all the time, locked in an arms race to market the most rugged-looking and intimidating vehicles. And the federal government under President Donald Trump is greasing the skids with rollbacks on fuel-mileage standards.
As reported recently in a major investigation by the Detroit Free Press and USA Today, a federal proposal to broaden the parameters for vehicle safety ratings to account for pedestrians stalled recently. Not surprisingly, it was under attack by some vehicle manufacturers.
Meanwhile, more and more Americans are dying. A preliminary calculation from the Governors Highway Safety Administration showed there were 6,590 pedestrian fatalities in 2019, which would be the highest level in 30 years if the estimate holds when final numbers are released later this year. Assuming the number holds, it would represent a 60% increase in pedestrian fatalities since 2009.
By comparison, fatalities from all other accidents rose just 2% from 2009 to 2018.
Safety advocates say the issue should be addressed not just by regulating the size of vehicles, but through increased use of automatic-braking technology that uses cameras and motion sensors to prevent accidents. Design changes also are needed to reduce blind spots.
But as Breen points out, we also need road designs that are safer for everyone involved — motorists, cyclists and pedestrians alike.