Make SUVs and light trucks as safe as cars or get rid of them

The Ford F150 is the most popular truck in North America, and it's flying off the showroom floor right now. The front of it is like a wall, I can barely see over it. More and more drivers are buying SUVs and pickup trucks these days, (LTVs or Light trucks and vans in the lingo) as the low price of fuel makes them more affordable to operate. People feel safer in them, surrounded by that heavy steel cage, and data show that indeed, in a collision between an Escalade and a Fiat 500 the Escalade driver is more likely to walk away. But what about pedestrians and cyclists? What happens when that F150 hits one?

It turns out that there is a very big difference between cars and LTVs. According to Naomi Buck in the Globe and Mail,

Researchers at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute have concluded that a pedestrian hit by an LTV (light truck vehicle, which includes minivans, pickup trucks and SUVs) is more than three times more likely to be killed than one hit by a car – less due to the vehicle’s greater mass than due to its height and the design of its front end. A pedestrian hit by a passenger car will, with luck (a relative term), be struck in the legs and sent over the hood. An LTV will probably strike a pedestrian with its blunt hood – for adults, at the level of the torso, home of the vital organs; for kids, the level of the head. The LTV will then knock 65 per cent of adults and 93 per cent of children to the ground, where they have a good chance of being run over.

statistics on deaths© New Scientist

In an earlier article in the New Scientist, Paul Marks notes that it's all about design.

Making SUVs less dangerous to pedestrians will require radical changes to their design. “One way to reduce head injuries from SUV impacts would be to replace the blunt front end with a sloping, more aerodynamic one, making them more car-like. But this won’t be popular with SUV buyers who like their rugged, off-road look,” [engineer Clay] Gabler says.

aging population© UMTRI

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, in a study on Designing Pedestrian Friendly Vehicles, notes that the combination of an aging population and the increase in LTVs is particularly dangerous.

cars vs suv© UMTRI

Age and vehicle type are two important factors affecting the injury risks in vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes. Interestingly, there are currently two independent trends in the world, especially in developed countries, with one being the aging of the population and the other the increasing proportion of SUVs (Figure 10). Unfortunately, both of these trends tend to increase the pedestrian-injury risk. Consequently, addressing the hazards posed by SUVs to older pedestrians is an important traffic-safety challenge.

Back in the Globe and Mail, Naomi Buck writes that " Studies show the more convinced a driver is of the safety of his own vehicle, the more careless he is in its operation."- The drivers of the big SUVs drive faster and take more risks. She calls for better licensing; I wonder if that is enough. Surely a place to start would be regulatory, with the same safety standards demanded of LTVs as there are for cars. This might lead to designing in crumple zones and perhaps even air bags.

injuries© UMTRI

Look at the distribution of injuries of AIS3+ (Abbreviated Injury Scale, serious to severe to critical). With LTVs, 86 percent of pedestrians end up as hood ornaments or get cooked on the grill. And we let this happen, we let people sit way up where they cannot even see over the long hood of these vehicles, pushing a giant wall down our city streets, which are filled increasingly with aging boomers who cannot jump out of the way.

Naomi Buck is right about licensing though. These should be considered work vehicles, requiring better training and tougher examinations. They are trucks, and drivers should need a trucking licence. That would certainly reduce the numbers.

Tags: Bike-Friendly World | Transportation


treehugger slideshows