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Can American Cars Be Made Safer for Pedestrians?

For decades, American vehicles have been growing heavier and taller. They are also deadlier, killing more pedestrians in the past 10 years. Better regulations and traffic calming can help. But the pace of change is slow.

A young woman standing next to a very large truck.
(Ingus Kruklitis/Shutterstock)
Melissa Daniels still dreams about the SUV that sent her to the hospital.

Over a decade ago, Daniels worked as a reporter at the Daily Messenger, a small newspaper that covered Ontario County in upstate New York. On the afternoon of Sept. 3, 2010, she’d just gotten her nails done, wrapped up a phone call with a friend, and was heading to City Hall to cover a council meeting.

Main Street in Canandaigua, a town of over 10,500 residents, is four lanes wide with a grassy median in the middle. Daniels only made it past one of the lanes in a midblock crosswalk when a white SUV struck her. The force of the impact knocked her shoes off and sent her flying more than 20 feet.

“My head cracked on the pavement super, super hard,” remembers Daniels. “I still remember the sound of my skull hitting that pavement. It haunts me in my sleep.”

It took Daniels months to recover from her injuries. She suffered a nasty concussion, and awoke the next day to find fluid leaking out of her ears. Her entire left side was one big bruise.

“There isn’t a day that goes by, if I’m walking on the street, that I don’t think about that accident,” says Daniels. “I cannot be near cars and not think about it. [With the] immense size and power that vehicles have, as little humans we’re just outmatched.”

The year that Daniels was injured was the beginning of an escalation in pedestrian deaths. Between 2009 and 2019, total driving miles increased by 10 percent while pedestrian deaths in the U.S. jumped by 50 percent. It’s since only grown worse, with more pedestrians dying in 2020 than 2019 despite a decline in vehicle miles driven. But even before the pandemic-related surge in reckless driving, American roads have been getting more dangerous for non-drivers in part because of the very vehicle type that struck Daniels down.

Numerous studies and investigations have shown that SUVs and other light trucks are far deadlier for those outside the vehicle than sedans. This isn’t a novel finding: Almost 20 years ago, researchers showed that SUVs were more than twice as likely to kill pedestrians as a normal sedan.
For decades, American vehicles have been growing heavier and taller, but the trend has accelerated over the last decade. In 2016, Fiat Chrysler announced they would abandon the sedan market, while in 2020 Ford decided to no longer sell them in the U.S. either. SUVs and trucks have outsold normal passenger vehicles every year since 2018. As Vice News recently showed, American cars are getting almost as big as World War II tanks.

Unlike the European Union or Japan, the U.S. has no regulations that require automakers to consider the safety of anyone but the consumer. Tucked away in last year’s infrastructure law, however, is a provision that could require a rating system that includes the safety of those outside the vehicle. It also calls for the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to promulgate new, and unspecified, regulations to tweak hoods and bumpers to be safer for pedestrians.

This rare moment of reform at the federal level also gives local and state authorities an opportunity to reflect on what they can do to stem pedestrian crashes. New York City, let alone Ontario County, can’t regulate car companies. But there are changes that can be made to the streets of cities and towns that can stem the carnage.

Otherwise, it will be left to personal responsibility. As more Americans drive vehicles akin to zippy Sherman tanks, transportation experts say that in too many cases that will not be enough.

Big Cars Are More Dangerous

The size of a vehicle matters when it comes to pedestrian safety. When pedestrians are hit by a sedan, they are likely to suffer a blow to the legs. But being struck by a large truck or SUV is far more likely to be life threatening.

“A full-size truck might hit a woman my size in the face, the neck, or the chest,” says Angie Schmitt, a planner who works with localities to develop safer streets. “That’s a more dangerous place to suffer a very strong blow: Your internal organs, your head, your brain, those are not good places to be hit.”

As passenger vehicles have become taller and larger, it also becomes harder for drivers to see people in front of their vehicles. Children, those using wheelchairs, and even average size adults can be obscured by a towering hood.

Jed Weeks, a bicycle advocate in Baltimore, captured an adult man being hit by a slowly turning pickup truck that appeared to have been unable to see him as he used a crosswalk.
Weeks says the driver wasn’t doing anything wrong, but the design of his vehicle made it hard to see what was directly in front of the truck. In this case, the driver was hauling construction equipment and a giant truck was useful for his work. But increasingly, this kind of vehicle is crowding out other, safer vehicles and many people who aren’t in construction or agriculture are using them.

“A lot of these medium to heavy duty pickup trucks are being purchased by people that are not fully using their capabilities and are just driving alone to work,” says Weeks. “That design is obviously super dangerous if those vehicles are increasingly used in urban and suburban areas as commuter vehicles instead of being used as work trucks.”

What Can Government Do?

In 2015, Barack Obama’s administration proposed adding pedestrian safety to the crash rating system used to score vehicles. But Donald Trump’s administration stymied the regulation.

The provisions in the infrastructure act are a chance to revive these efforts, according to transportation reform advocates like Schmitt. But she is not sure that the impetus for change will last, especially in today’s extremely polarized partisan climate.

USDOT has two years to write the new regulations for making automobiles more pedestrian friendly and then it has to be passed by Congress. But as the politics of transportation have become more polarized, it is easy to imagine such a bill being turned into a culture war issue.

“We’ve already seen this [kind of regulation] scuttled by a Republican administration that was regulation averse,” says Schmitt, who is also author of a book on pedestrian safety. “For a lot of people their identity is closely allied with certain types of vehicles and it’s very polarized.”
GHSA Ped infographicsArtboard 3@2x-100.jpg
Then there is the old-fashioned regional politics to consider. A lot of automobile manufacturing is still based in the politically competitive Midwest, and many Democratic lawmakers from that region might not want to be seen embracing legislation that could harm American industry.

“The other political issue is that the American auto companies are very invested in SUVs and pickups,” says Schmitt. “Politicians are hesitant to do something that would harm the American auto industry compared to foreign competitors.”

If the odds of change at the federal level are challenging, that doesn’t mean states and localities are powerless. In New York a bill was introduced to require pedestrian safety rankings for vehicles sold in the state, although it never got out of committee. California has a long history of pushing new regulations on the auto industry, and because of its sheer size, forcing the companies to adopt such changes elsewhere.

On the local level, less dramatic fixes can be adopted. In Baltimore, the slow-motion crash that Weeks witnessed could have gone much differently. But a few days earlier, the city had put up a traffic calming installation — just simple flex posts and paint. The driver saw the new addition to the road and slowly maneuvered around it.

“This video was filmed two days after the installation, so if the guy had crossed the street two days earlier, he might be dead,” says Weeks. “Prior to that, the driver of that vehicle likely wouldn’t have even stopped in this intersection so they would have made that turn at triple or quadruple the speed.”

Narrowing wide streets, tweaking intersections to encourage slower tuns, and making crosswalks more visible are all well within the power of local authorities. (A slight design tweak to create clearer signals around the mid-block crosswalk could have saved Daniels a trip to the hospital and months of recovery in 2010.) An installation with flex posts like the one in Baltimore is cheap and easy, but it isn’t particularly robust. Other traffic calming measures, like curb extensions or harder obstacles, could be safer — if more expensive.

For Daniels, it is important that drivers take responsibility for the vehicle they drive, and the bigger the automobile the bigger the responsibility. (She now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., and owns an SUV herself.) Pedestrian safety isn’t about shaming consumers for buying a vehicle that may well make sense for them, but current conditions ensure that SUVs and light trucks dominate the market — and the built environment and auto regulations isn’t structured to ensure they interact with pedestrians safely.

“I just try to be grateful that it wasn’t worse,” says Daniels, “because I see the statistics about how many people die because of traffic crashes. And they seem to me to be very needless deaths.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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