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A new study reportedly suggests that congestion pricing could not only cure traffic jams but also convince motorists it is safe to buy smaller, more efficient cars. Congestion pricing are policies that charge tolls for driving during peak hours, which could potentially alleviate post-pandemic rush hour.
Researchers from Washington State University and the Brookings Institution studied a sample of nearly 300 households in the Seattle area over a six-year period and found that the more congested their commutes, the more likely they would buy bigger cars which they perceive as safer and more comfortable. Then, the researchers modelled what congestion pricing might do to change car purchase decisions and found it would reduce the market share of mid- to full-size SUVs by 8%.
At the national level, shrinking that number of large vehicles on the road would mean a 10% decline in the vehicle fatality rate, saving lives and $25 billion in associated costs as well as another 3% in improved fuel efficiency which amounts to nearly $10 billion in savings.
Jia Yan, WSU economics professor and corresponding author on the study published in the Journal of Econometrics, said: “We found that congestion pricing can reduce congestion on one side and reduce vehicle size on the other. Then the positive impacts of decreasing vehicle size mean that energy consumption and fatality rates can also drop.”
In 1980, light trucks and SUVs made up only about 20% of new vehicles sold. In comparison, that figure had risen to 62% by 2017 — an upward trend that doesn’t seem like it will decrease anytime soon.
In Mar. 2021, the U.S. set a new record last for sales of these types of sales. According to new data from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis, light truck sales soared to yet another all-time high in Mar. 2021, topping 13.8 million units sold in that month alone. This represents a 6% bump from the previous all-time record set this Jan., and a 10% increase over the previous 45-year high in July 2005. But the big car surge 16 years ago was part of an upward sales trend among all types of vehicles. Right now, total vehicle sales are actually about 14% lower than they were in July of 2005.
Moreover, previous research has noted that traffic jams can lead to an “arms race” with drivers buying bigger and bigger cars for their perceived personal safety on congested highways when accidents are more likely to occur. And yet, late-model SUVs still appear to be more likely to kill pedestrians than cars, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Per a recent study’s limited sample, SUVs reportedly cause 7% more serious injuries to pedestrians than passenger cars when struck at speeds quicker than 19 miles per hour. At speeds between 20 and 39 mph, 30% of pedestrians struck by SUVs died, compared with 25% who were hit by cars. For pedestrians struck by SUV’s going at speeds of 40 mph or greater, 100% died, versus 54% who were struck by cars.
As the publication Streetsblog noted recently, there’s a mountain of evidence saying that the rise in SUV and pickup truck sales is one of the single largest contributors to the pedestrian death crisis in the U.S. The publication attributes this to “a toxic combination” of heavy vehicle weights, ample blind spots, and high front bumpers that strike most vulnerable road users at the head and neck level, where injuries are more likely to be fatal.
“There’s always a trade-off between your own benefits and the cost to others in society,” said Yan. “When people purchase a large vehicle, they don’t always take in these externalities – these negative impacts – into consideration. They only consider their own self-protection, or whether they are comfortable when they’re driving, so this is why we need better policy.”