Americans love super-size. Big Macs, big TVs and big cars.
Over the past two decades, the popularity of SUVs, pickups and minivans has exploded, overtaking sedans and compacts. The “light truck” category, which includes all such vehicles, has grown from just over half of new sales and rentals in 2010 to 76% in 2020, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The market was reflected in this year’s Super Bowl broadcast, which featured ads with people driving gleaming pickup trucks through empty landscapes, ready to pull someone out of an avalanche or haul hay. In real life, you’re more likely to see them in a supermarket parking lot, carrying a single passenger with groceries.
Big cars are also getting bigger – the biggest vehicles on the market now weigh around 7,000 pounds.
What’s the appeal for those who don’t really need such a behemoth for their business or to raise a large family?
“It gives you a sense of power, of being higher than others on the road,” said Alex Perez, advocacy manager for the Active Transportation Alliance.
You are also safer if you are an occupant. In 2016, the highest occupant fatality rate per 100,000 registered vehicles was for compact cars with 12.91 fatalities, while standard pickups were 8.86 and full-size SUVs were 6.78, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But while larger vehicles are safer for people inside, they are deadlier for those outside. Pedestrian fatalities increased 54% between 2010 and 2020, compared to 13% for all other road fatalities, according to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association in May. During this period, the percentage of fatal accidents involving SUV drivers increased faster than the percentage of fatal collisions involving car drivers, according to the same report.
“Larger vehicles are inherently more dangerous for pedestrians,” the GHSA report notes. It’s simple physics – the bigger and heavier something is, the harder it will hit.
The design of some larger vehicles can also create blind spots for drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers of SUVs, pick-ups, vans and minivans are “significantly more likely” than motorists to hit pedestrians when cornering, suggesting that these large vehicles may not provide drivers with as clear a view of people as they turn. cross the road.
“We already know that larger vehicles cause more serious injuries when they hit pedestrians,” said IIHS Vice President of Research Jessica Cicchino, one of the study’s authors. “The link between these types of vehicles and some common pedestrian crashes indicates another way in which the increase in the number of SUVs on the roads could be changing the crash picture.”
“They are bigger, heavier and taller than smaller cars and create blind spots that prevent drivers from seeing vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists,” Perez said. Vehicles have also gotten wider, making them scarier for cyclists protected by nothing more than paint or plastic bollards, Perez noted.
Fortunately for vulnerable road users and the climate, the momentum of oversized passenger vehicles may be slowing down.
One of the factors is rising gasoline prices. As hard as it’s been for low-income drivers and those who must drive for a living, paying nearly $6 a gallon for gas has a silver lining in that it encourages car buyers to reduce their consumption. According to Cox Automotive, which analyzes sales information from Kelley Blue Book and Auto Trader, electric and hybrid vehicles have become very popular since January. But that’s how it is purchase more fuel-efficient gasoline models, such as small and medium cars, which represents a 33% increase.
Municipal governments also began to pressure the industry. The National Association of City Transportation Officials, a coalition of municipal transit departments and transit agencies from the United States and Canada, urges its members to help change the way the U.S. Department of Transportation assesses passenger safety. cars to show the negative impact of large vehicles.
Currently, under the federal government’s new vehicle assessment program, almost all vehicles receive a four or five star rating. These ratings, touted on car ads, only consider the safety of humans inside cars, not outside, NACTO explains. The new rules proposed by the USDOT would begin to rate cars based on their impacts on pedestrian safety. NACTO believes the proposed changes don’t go far enough and wants the USDOT to only award a five-star rating to vehicles with certain safety features, such as line-of-sight from the driver’s seat and systems that limit dangerous speeds automatically.
Comments on the rule changes are expected by June 8. The Chicago Department of Transportation and the CTA are members of NACTO, but it was not immediately clear whether those agencies would add their voices to the campaign.
“We need to recognize the real safety of our vehicles, not give them five stars when they are more likely to have an accident and kill someone in an accident,” NACTO spokesman Alex said. Engel. He said admitting that some of these vehicles are unsafe “could prompt manufacturers to redesign their vehicles for greater safety, and show consumers that these vehicles are unsafe and being misled”.
Kate Lowe, an associate professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said other countries are taking the lead in adopting vehicle safety regulations that protect road users in exterior of vehicles, such as cyclists and pedestrians, and that the United States needs to catch up. “The increasing number of large vehicles, like SUVs, coupled with a pavement system designed for speed, are deadly to pedestrians, cyclists and others outside of vehicles,” Lowe said.
Audrey Wennink, director of transport for the Metropolitan Planning Council, agreed that our country needs to re-examine what it calls a “safe” vehicle. “The United States needs to start performing pedestrian safety testing outside of vehicles, as has been done in Europe,” Wennink said. “Given the sharp rise in the number of pedestrians killed and injured in vehicle crashes, and the trend towards larger SUVs and pickup trucks, we need to do more to address this issue.”
Taking a stand on this issue is the City of Washington, D.C., which has proposed requiring owners of vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds, like a Ford F-250 or Chevy Silverado HD, to pay an annual registration fee. $500, nearly seven times the cost of registering a sedan. No other US jurisdiction has created such a deterrent against larger car models, according to Bloomberg News. For comparison, the Chicago sticker fee for passenger vehicles weighing more than 4,500 pounds is $151.55, about $56 more than the $95.42 fee for smaller vehicles.
Engel sees the news from DC as encouraging. “Our whole network is going to be looking to see how well this works in DC and if that’s enough of a boost,” Engel said. “We can see what we can do to nudge people towards safer options.”