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Since the mid-1970, federal regulators have known about the inherent dangers that large vehicles pose to vulnerable road users, yet they’ve done little to stop it. And as Streetsblog noted in a recent article, they probably won’t until the U.S. starts putting transportation justice before consumer protection — the genesis of a new legal research paper.
Known as the most pedestrian-unfriendly vehicles on roadways nationwide, sales of SUVs and pickups continue to soar, with no signs of slowing down any time soon. Megacars account for a staggering 75.9% of new car sales — a number that’s up from 53% just eight years ago. This is despite the fact that people on foot are up to three times more likely to be killed when struck by the drivers of such vehicles.
Pedestrians struck by a large SUV are reportedly twice as likely to be killed as those hit by a car. Over the past 10 years, the number of pedestrian deaths involving SUVs went up 81%, well above the increase in passenger-car related deaths.
The megacar boom is widely acknowledged to be a primary driver of the U.S. pedestrian death crisis, but it’s also killing other motorists. The drivers of smaller cars are 158% more likely to be killed by pick-up truck drivers in the event of a collision, and 28% more likely if they’re struck by someone behind the wheel of an SUV.
Moreover, that death toll is not uniformly distributed. Women, low-income people, and people of color though they’re are all less likely to buy big cars, they’re also disproportionately more likely to be killed by the driver of one, whether they’re on foot or driving themselves. In direct contrast, market research firm Strategic Vision found during the 2020 edition of its New Vehicle Experience Study, which drew from more than 46,000 respondents, that pickup truck and SUV buyers skew white, Republican voters, and relatively wealthy.
In an upcoming paper, researcher John Saylor traces the history of how light trucks (an umbrella category that includes SUVs, pick-ups, and large vans) came to dominate U.S. roads, as well as the role that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congress, and some key figures in the traffic safety movement have played in enabling it.
Because despite the mountain of data collected over the years regarding these types of vehicles, the federal Department of Transportation has long been hesitant to regulate them. In particular, to set limits on how tall, heavy, or aggressively designed the front end of a light truck can legally be. To date, only one federal motor vehicle safety has ever explicitly addressed how the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and wheelchair users is impacted by any vehicle design choices, and it was rescinded in 1994. The agency hasn’t proposed another one in 40 years.
In 2019, 6,301 pedestrians were reportedly killed by vehicles on U.S. streets — up 46% from 2010. Over the same timespan, the total for all traffic deaths rose by 5%. Compared with the number of miles driven, the rate of pedestrians struck and killed soared by 20%, putting 2020 on track for the largest one-year increase in the death rate ever. At the same time, driving nationwide was down 16.5 % due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A new report by the Governors Highway Safety Association reportedly found that the pedestrian fatality rate rose 22% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period a year earlier. The reason was attributed to “speeding, distracted and impaired driving, and other dangerous driving behaviors [that] increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.”