Transportation Justice Paper Calls for 'Dramatic Reframing of Auto-Safety Policy'

SUVs and pickups are still dangerous. Here's how it got so bad and what needs to change.

A massive SUV

Lloyd Alter

When Ford announced the Electric F-150 last year, I made the case that Ford can repair the biggest problem with pickups when it goes electric by fixing its front end: making it safer. I wrote that "Ford could make a smaller front trunk and they could slope it down to the front so that drivers could actually see who was in front of them."

Ford didn't. It just took the same body shape and added 1,800 pounds of inertia with the batteries, making it even more dangerous.

Yes, it's wonderful that it is electric. But why can't they be safe? For that matter, how did we get where we are already, with all the light trucks–the proper name for these big SUVs and pickups– having such dangerous designs that kill at three times the rate of cars? Why are we in this mess?

John F. Saylor, a J.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has some answers. Saylor, who has "always been a car guy," tells Treehugger his family owns a Ford F-150 to tow around an old Ford Model T and previously used a Suburban. He thought it weird the Fords just kept getting bigger. Saylor worked in federal civil rights enforcement before law school, where a lot of his work dealt with transit systems. After reading Greg Shill's article "Should Law Subsidize Driving?," he started seriously thinking about the issue and wrote "The Road to Transport Justice: Reframing Auto Safety in the SUV," which looks at the missed opportunities.

The Road to Transportation Justice


Tom Flood

Saylor notes the problem with the regulation of cars and light trucks goes back 50 years, because "a singular focus on consumer protection has persistently prevented auto-safety regulators from addressing serious external hazards created by dangerous automobile designs." And by the consumer, he means the person who buys the car and is inside, not the person outside.

Back in 2003, two dangers of light trucks were identified in Senate hearings on safety: rollovers and crash incompatibility. The former is when the truck tips over to its side or roof and the latter is the danger created when two vehicles of different size and weight (such as an SUV and a sedan) collide. Rollovers injure occupants while crash incompatibility is an externalized problem—in a crash between a light truck and a car, car occupants are six times as likely to die than those in the light truck.

"Crucially, the committee also heard that consumers were purchasing light trucks for their perceived safety advantages, and aside from the rollover risk, light trucks indeed offered substantially more protection to their occupants," writes Saylor.

The government ordered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to do something about the rollovers, which they did, but "rather than engaging in any rulemaking, NHTSA permitted the major automakers to adopt voluntary standards to improve outcomes in light-truck-on-car collisions." The result is what Saylor calls "a light truck crisis of safety and equity."

Crash incompatibility disproportionately affects women and low-income drivers, who tend to be in older, smaller cars, whereas the SUVs and pickups are more often driven by white men. Saylor wrote:

"The pedestrian-safety crisis is likewise a product of the light-truck boom. Not only has the frequency of pedestrian strikes increased since 2009 (despite overall traffic fatalities remaining steady and no rise in walking) but crashes themselves have become deadlier — a direct consequence of the proliferation of light trucks. Their greater mass and tall, blunt front ends direct greater impact forces to heads and chests; as a result, NHTSA researchers found that pedestrians are up to three times more likely to be killed when struck by a light truck. This increased risk has led to an incredible 81% increase in pedestrian fatalities involving SUVs between 2009 and 2016. With declining occupant fatalities, the portion of traffic victims outside vehicles (including both pedestrians and bicyclists) is at the highest point since NHTSA began collecting fatality data."

It is also a self-reinforcing crisis, as car drivers increasingly feel unsafe and buy bigger vehicles. And to reiterate: Every electric SUV and pickup is significantly heavier than the gas-powered version and will be even more dangerous.

The problem, as Saylor nails it, is it is in the consumer, or driver's interest, to have a heavier and higher vehicle "since vehicle height and weight negatively correlates with increased pedestrian safety and crash compatibility but positively correlates with increased occupant protection."

Then follows a long, sorry tale of 50 years of regulation, with the NHTSA acting "to protect drivers from the negative consequences of their purchases," writes Saylor. The U.S. government agency did little to deal with "the externalities that automobile owners’ choices imposed on other groups, and the gender and economic disparities that ensued." Instead, the "NHTSA has been increasingly drawn to auto-safety solutions that impose the least burdens on occupants and owners and have a consumer product focus, including recalls covered at manufacturer expense, the NCAP consumer information program, and a growing focus on education efforts to modify pedestrian behavior."

Auto Safety as Transportation Justice

Hummer EV
A dominating front end.


Saylor calls for Transportation Justice—a new vision of auto safety where "the alarming disparate impacts that these externalized dangers create for women, low-income people and people of color demand urgent intervention to ensure that our transportation system does not compound existing inequalities."

He sees an opportunity with the new administration. "Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has brought considerable attention to road-safety issues and has consistently highlighted equity as a high priority for the department," writes Saylor.

"Congress and the executive should act to bring NHTSA’s rulemaking in line with transportation justice principles and pump the brakes on the decades-long safety crisis unfolding on our streets," concludes Saylor.

Perhaps this administration should grab the opportunity to make these new electric vehicles safer; we are talking about design, about the air in there under the hood. There is no good reason not to.