Big Cars Are Killing Americans

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COMMENTARY | The government can no longer allow the auto industry to treat walkers and bikers like collateral damage.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for its newsletters.

After a decade of steady increases, the newest Ford F-250—part of Ford’s F-Series of pickups, the No. 1 selling vehicle model in America—measures some 55 inches tall at the hood. That’s “as tall as the roof of some sedans,” a Consumer Reports writer remarked in a recent analysis examining the mega-truck trend. This height would easily render someone in a wheelchair, or a child, totally invisible at close range. If I, a tallish woman at 5 foot 6, were hit by a new F-250, I would be struck above the chest. The face, head, neck: These are not great places to suffer a forceful blow—like the kind that an up-to-7,500-pound F-250 can deliver.

Americans have traded sedans for crossovers and SUVs for full-size pickups with total abandon over the past decade. To the extent that we think at all critically about the sheer bulk of the vehicles we drive, we’re usually motivated by environmental concerns. One common notion—though auto-safety experts will say it’s not that simple—is that it’s safer to get around in what’s basically a tank. But those benefits, exaggerated as they may be, are only for people inside the vehicle. People outside—pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users—are in more peril.

European and Japanese regulators have for many years imposed pedestrian-safety standards on automakers, leading to innovations like the active hood (a little airbag-type of cushioning for a car’s hood). American regulators, however, have been slow to think beyond the driver’s seat.

This helps explain why passenger and driver deaths have remained mostly stable over the past decade while pedestrian fatalities have risen by about 50 percent. From 2019 to 2020, pedestrian deaths per vehicle miles traveled increased a record 21 percent, for a total of 6,721 fatalities. This astonishing death toll has multiple causes, but the scale of the front end of many pickup trucks and SUVs is part of the problem, and that’s been obvious for quite a while.

[Read: The pedestrian-death crisis came to my neighborhood]

Back in 2002, the New York Times writer Keith Bradsher noted in his book, High and Mighty, that the auto industry tapped into some “reptilian” impulses for more aggressive vehicles. A marketing savant at Chrysler in the 1990s, who helped launch the SUV trend, liked to compare the road to a “battlefield.” Bradsher quoted him as saying, “My theory is, the reptilian always wins. The reptilian says, ‘If there’s a crash, I want the other guy to die.’ Of course I can’t say that out loud.” He probably meant “the guy in the other car.” What about the guy in the street? In 2003, a study found that SUVs were three times more likely than sedans to kill pedestrians when they struck them. Leg injuries are dreadful, but “serious head and chest injuries can actually kill you,” the injury-biomechanics professor Clay Gabler told the Detroit Free Press in 2018.

Without any intervention from regulators, the attempt to appeal to the “reptilian” impulse has only grown. Front ends have morphed into towering brick walls. Consumer Reports notes that the weight and hood height of new pickups have grown by 11 percent and 24 percent, respectively, since 2000. Pickup trucks make up one in five vehicle sales—and the full-size models dominate now in a way that they didn’t in the past. Some of the best-selling pickups and SUVs in America are now bigger than military tanks from World War II, Vice magazine, among others, recently pointed out.

The consequences of the bigger-is-better fad are felt unequally. Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately hit and killed while walking, as are older Americans, people with disabilities, and people who live in low-income neighborhoods. The low social status of these victims—especially compared with that of wealthier new-car buyers—may help explain why we’ve been willing to ignore auto-industry excesses.

The late consumer advocate Clarence Ditlow called pedestrian protection “one of the last frontiers in vehicle safety,” and added that the industry was reluctant to address it, “because it relates so closely with styling.”

Meanwhile, the hyperaggressive macho-truck trend has been enormously profitable for the auto industry—particularly the Detroit-based Big Three. Profits are as high as $17,000 on a Chevy Silverado. Crossover SUVs sell at a $10–$15,000 markup over the sedans they were based on, according to Automotive News, even though they cost a similar amount to make.

[Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow: Surrendering our cities to cars would be a historic blunder]

Hidden within the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill is the U.S.’s first real attempt to address the regulatory shortfall. The bill requires that our five-star vehicle-safety-rating system—the New Car Assessment Program—be overhauled and that ratings be added for pedestrian impacts. (When the Obama administration proposed this change in 2015, some American automakers, such as General Motors, protested, and the Trump administration scuttled the whole thing.) Even better, the infrastructure bill calls for regulators at the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop standards for bumpers and hoods aimed at reducing injuries to pedestrians and cyclists. The agency will have two years to develop the standards and present them to Congress.

These changes have the potential to save a lot of lives—but they will take time. According to IHS Markit, the average age of an American car on the road is 12.2 years, a new high and up from 9.6 years in 2002. That means that a fully turned-over safer-vehicle fleet is more than a decade away, and we can expect pedestrian deaths to remain sickeningly high.

Over the long term, we have to shift our focus from blaming individuals when they are struck by cars—“Did you look both ways?”—to addressing the systemic factors that put them at risk. The government can no longer allow the auto industry to treat walkers and bikers like collateral damage.

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