Lives could be saved under proposed new federal vehicle safety rating system

We urge action on proposed new federal regulations aimed at making vehicles, which are now larger than ever, safer for pedestrians.

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Ford Explorers, right, roll off the assembly line at the Chicago Ford Assembly | Associated Press

SUVs, trucks and cars could be redesigned to reduce pedestrian fatalities in traffic accidents, under provisions in the new federal infrastructure bill.

This might surprise those old enough to remember when huge American-made land yachts — those big Cadillacs, Fords and Chryslers — ruled the road: Today’s consumer pick-up trucks and SUVs rival those mammoths in weight and length, and, of course, surpass them in height.

That growth has come with a significant cost, according to road safety advocates. The larger vehicles, with their beefier pillars and increased height, make it harder for drivers to see pedestrians — and for pedestrians and cyclists to survive when struck by them.

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But tucked away in the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed last November by President Joe Biden, are a host of new recommendations aimed at making vehicles safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

If those recommendations become law, the changes would apply to all consumer vehicles, including SUVs and trucks, the drivers of which are involved in an increasing number of fatal collisions with pedestrians and cyclists, according to studies.

We urge the federal government to take immediate action on fleshing out these provisions and making them law.

Trucks, SUVs are safer than before— unless you’re a pedestrian, cyclist

All classes of vehicles, as well as bad road design, make things less safe for pedestrians. But a recent University of Hawaii study published in the journal Economics of Transportation links the increased size and weight of SUVs and trucks to an uptick in auto-vs-pedestrian fatalities.

Researchers examined U.S. fatal car accidents between 2000 and 2019 and concluded that 1,100 pedestrian deaths could have been averted if the driver had been behind the wheel of a passenger automobile rather than a consumer truck or SUV.

And a 2020 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that pedestrians who were struck by SUVs traveling between 20 and 39 mph died in three out of 10 such collisions. Cars in the simplest accidents killed pedestrians 5 out of 22 times, the institute found.

IHS spokesperson Joe Young told Car & Driver carmakers have made SUVs safer in accidents with other vehicles, but “what this study tells us is that those efforts did nothing for pedestrians.”

Current vehicle safety ratings only take passengers into consideration. But the infrastructure law could broaden vehicle safety ratings to include those outside the car as well — similar to regulations in Japan and Europe.

And if enacted, the law could also require automakers to change the design of vehicle bumpers and hoods in way that improves pedestrian and cyclist safety in a collision.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers across the country are asking their own states to enact rating systems similar to those outlined in the federal infrastructure bill.

State Sen. Andrew Gounardes from New York introduced a bill in 2020 that would rank and post pedestrian safety ratings online for all vehicles for sale in the Empire State. Dealerships would be required to display the rankings.

The bill is currently in the New York General Assembly’s transportation committee.

“We hope this [bill] will help educate people in a way that will help them see the consequences of their choices,” Gounardes told Bloomberg CityLab last year.

The time to start is now

U.S. auto buyers since 2018 have purchased more trucks and SUVs than passenger cars.

They’re so popular, Ford discontinued its entire passenger car line — with the exception of the Mustang — four years ago to focus on manufacturing trucks, SUVs and crossovers.

And the big vehicles have substantially grown in size over the last decade or so. Vice News reported last summer that modern trucks and SUVs are almost as large as were the Sherman M4 tanks the U.S. Army used in World War II.

All of this is reason enough for the federal government to mandate making the vehicles safer for pedestrians — and to better educate purchasers.

“Most people aren’t primed to think about the impact that their vehicle purchases have on the greater safety of people in the environment around them,” New York’s Gounardes said.

But it’s time they do.

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