Why Are Deadly "Bull Bars" Allowed on North American Vehicles?

Bull bars on a parked car

Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

Angie Schmitt calls them “a fashion accessory to convey a sense of aggression.” Who needs this?

For a number of years I have been taking photos of cars and SUVs with big bits of metal mounted on front. I was certain that they were dangerous, but I did not even know what they were even called; in a post about a driver who jumped the sidewalk and maimed five kids, I described them as “an after-market steel thing on front that blocks the shock-absorbing front bumper and probably significantly increased the carnage.”

Toronto SUV police car with visible bars on the front end
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

What Are These Metal Bars?

Eventually I learned that they are called “rock bars” or “bull bars” or “push bars” and they are legal where I live in Ontario, Canada; according to a Transport ministry spokesperson:

“Rock bars, bull bars” and winches are permitted provided that installation of these components does not constitute a safety hazard to vehicle occupants, pedestrians, other vehicles or property as stipulated in Ontario Regulation 611. There should be no exposed sharp edges, loose cables, unrestrained parts, hooks or other potentially injurious components located where pedestrians or other vehicles may come into contact with this hardware.

I thought that was a totally silly answer, given that these things are clearly going to do damage. But I assumed that the Police had them so that they could ram or push other cars as they might be wont to do.

Why Are They So Dangerous?

But now, Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog is on the case, complaining that putting them on police cars is particularly dangerous. Calling them “a fashion accessory to convey a sense of aggression,” she describes how the car companies are marketing them and how police departments love them:

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the local police department recently had to defend its use of bull bars after a resident complained about safety and police militarization. The Argus Leader reported that the department had spent $22,000 to put them on 45 police cars. Barry Wellar, a retired University of Ottawa professor and expert witness on traffic collisions, told the paper they are dangerous. “They’re head high for a kid. They can take the bull bar right in the head,” he said. “And they’re absolutely killer for cyclists or pedestrians. It’s serious trouble.”

The local police department said tough luck, as I suppose the Toronto and New York Police might, they love that aggressive and intimidating look. But there is real research on this subject; a team led by Ediriweera Desapriya of the University of British Columbia reviewed the issue and concluded:

The literature reviewed in this study indicates that vehicles fitted with bull bars, particularly those without deformable padding, concentrate crash forces over a smaller area of vulnerable road users during collisions compared to vehicles not fitted with a bull bar. Rigid bull bars, such as those made from steel or aluminum, stiffen the front end of vehicles and interfere with the vital shock absorption systems designed in vehicle fronts. These devices therefore significantly alter the collision dynamics of vehicles, resulting in an increased risk of pedestrian injury and mortality in crashes. This literature review shows that bull bars do indeed increase the severity of injuries to vulnerable road users in the event of a collision and highlights the need for current traffic safety policies to reflect the safety concerns surrounding the use of bull bars.

Limo next to Seagram Building
Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

Really, it is bad enough that pickup trucks and SUVs are allowed on the road driven by people with conventional drivers licences when these vehicles are already three times as likely to kill as regular cars. That people are allowed to add this untested aftermarket crap and make them even more deadly is unconscionable.