The US Has a Pedestrian Safety Crisis Thanks to Bigger Vehicles

A lawyer investigated how regulations should be changed to reduce the carnage.

Trucks just get bigger and bigger
Trucks are just get bigger and bigger.

Lloyd Alter

The United States has a pedestrian safety crisis. While much of the world has seen a drop in the rate at which pedestrians are killed, the U.S. saw a 46% increase between 2010 and 2018. What makes America such an outlier? Greg Shill, a law professor at the Iowa College of Law, just released a paper, "Regulating the Pedestrian Safety Crisis," that investigates the situation.

Shill found a number of causes, with a major one being the size of automobiles in the U.S. "There is growing evidence that the enlargement of the American vehicle has played a key role," said the study. "Auto companies earn higher profit margins on large vehicles, and consumers prefer their greater creature comforts. But the size, height, and weight necessary for those comforts has been shown to make these vehicles far deadlier for those who have the misfortune of being struck by them."

Whenever we write about this subject, there is significant pushback from those who say they need their pickup trucks to tow their boats over snowy mountain passes, but the safety of people who walk or cycle is a critically important issue if we are going to get people out of cars. We have discussed this before on Treehugger and concluded that it is all about design: the size, height, and shape of the vehicles. Shill provided greater detail and insight by examining how we got here, why nothing has been done about it, and what we should do now.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

Safe streets and walkable communities are key to reducing our carbon emissions from driving. While smaller cars have better fuel efficiency, fewer emissions, and are significantly safer for pedestrians, light trucks (pickups, SUVs, crossovers, and minivans) account for more than 75% of all new vehicle sales. Meanwhile, pickups and SUVs, heavier vehicles with higher front-end profiles, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers, and children they hit. Treehugger prioritizes pedestrian safety and advocates for regulations making light trucks more sustainable and less deadly.

Shill started by making the lawyerly case that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has the power to regulate vehicle design, should prioritize the safety of pedestrians, who are maximally exposed. "They lack the steel cages, seatbelts, airbags, and other protections present in every modern vehicle," the study said. But more importantly, they do not assume the risk of operating a vehicle and do not benefit from it. They deserve protection. 

Change in Number of Deaths

Gregory Shill

Shill then described the state of the pedestrian safety crisis in greater detail, noting that vehicle miles traveled have not increased significantly and that other countries have had the rate of pedestrian deaths decline. He also pointed out that Black people and Native Americans are far more likely than white people to be killed while walking, not only because they disproportionately live in areas with unsafe infrastructure but also because driver behavior is different. 

Meanwhile, the NHTSA regulations have worked quite well for driver safety; the rate of death for people inside vehicles has declined because that is what the NHTSA cares about. "Vehicle safety is an example of a domain where innovation has benefited vehicle occupants without regard—and plausibly at some cost—to pedestrian safety."

Because of the lack of any kind of regulation, vehicles got taller, and they got 30% heavier. We have also noted the ability of drivers to see what is around them declined significantly as hoods got longer and higher, and A-pillars supporting the roof got bigger to support the heavier body of the vehicle in a rollover. Unlike the European regulators with their NCAP standards, the NHTSA did nothing. 

"NHTSA’s decision not to act has left pedestrians at the mercy of heavier and taller vehicles....It is not hyperbole to observe that, left by NHTSA to its own devices, the invisible hand is pushing large numbers of pedestrians to their demise." 

Shill made four recommendations to deal with this crisis. 

1) The NHTSA should fulfill its mandate to protect the public against unreasonable risk, and that includes people outside the vehicle.

Chevrolet Silverado and Ford Transit
The Chevrolet Silverado next to the Ford Transit.

Lloyd Alter

2) The NHTSA should bring in Euro-style regulations affecting the design of vehicles and assess them for how well they protect road users. This will lead to changes in the designs, including "the use of protective materials, like hoods that crumple upon impact, as well as attention to the height and weight of vehicles would help mitigate risk to pedestrians and other third parties." You can see the difference in the photo of a Ford Transit, a Euro design, next to the Silverado. The Transit has a sloping front, better visibility, and sits much lower so that it is unlikely that a pedestrian will be dragged under. 

Intelligent Speed Assistance
European Transport Safety Council

3) Shill said that most of the increase in deaths happened in the dark and calls for more research and testing of lighting. But more likely, the driver is speeding, and the lights on SUVs and trucks are already bright enough to be blinding.

One of the main reasons that drivers speed is that the roads are basically designed for speed, and when you are sitting in your big, high, moving sofa, it's hard to drive slowly. So the NHTSA should also implement the dreaded Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA), which will no doubt be as controversial as mandatory seat belts. 

The better approach would be to change our road designs to reduce speeding—the Vision Zero approach—but as Shill pointed out, "The role of physical infrastructure and street design in pedestrian safety outcomes has gained increasing appreciation in recent decades, but safety enhancements are often stalled by legal, political, and fiscal challenges." So perhaps ISA is the next best thing. 

4) Finally, the NCAP tests should be modernized to represent the older and younger members of the population who are far more likely to die when hit. 

Shill concluded:

"Improving safety for all road users is essential, yet in NCAP—both its current form and the proposed update—NHTSA fails to move beyond its historically narrow focus on car occupants. Ironically, this choice betrays NHTSA’s own statutory mission to “protect the public against unreasonable risk.” NHTSA should move to conform its practices to its mandate by redefining its evaluation of vehicle safety to account for the well-being of the people vehicles endanger most: pedestrians and other vulnerable users of the roadway."

But the NHTSA cannot act alone. We not only have to change the cars, but we have to change the roads. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials needs an overhaul as well. Even the Federal Trade Commission has to join the party and regulate the advertising of trucks as fast, powerful, manly necessities. 

None of this will be easy, particularly since this has become a culture war. The abuse I got for tweeting about the two trucks and the comments in the post I wrote about it was shocking. This will probably be the toughest problem of all. 

View Article Sources
  1. Shill, Gregory H. "Regulating the Pedestrian Safety Crisis." Iowa College of Law, 2022.