Bigger vehicles are directly resulting in more deaths of people walking

Dangerous by Design 2021 chronicles the impact of street design on pedestrian deaths, but the increasing size of the vehicle fleet is also contributing to the growing numbers of people struck and killed while walking. Federal policymakers so far appear to be asleep at the switch.

Side by side photos showing the size of children compared to the front end of large trucks.
An aftermarket lifted Ford truck (left) and a new stock model Chevrolet truck on display at the 2020 Washington Auto Show. Photos by Stephen Lee Davis.

You don’t need to read a research paper to know that more people are driving trucks and SUVs (sport utility vehicles) compared to 20 years ago, that today’s trucks and SUVs are significantly bigger than they were 10-20 years ago, or that they’re more dangerous for people walking, biking, or getting around with an assistive device. It’s intuitive. 

The data bears these trends out, and federal regulators are both aware and failing to act.

This post is adapted and expanded from the 2021 Dangerous by Design report from Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition.

The US vehicle fleet is in the midst of a major transformation

Sedans—with their low front bumpers and high all-around visibility—were once the most popular type of car in the country, but those days are done. As the graphic below shows, since 2009 the share of all new vehicles bought and sold that were sedans plunged from nearly 40 to below 30 percent and, if current trends hold, could be below 15 percent before the 2020s are over.

graphic showing share of new cars sold by type

This trend is likely to continue or even accelerate in the coming years: Numerous carmakers have moved to cancel their smaller sedans and shift that production capacity to trucks, new SUVs, and other SUV/crossover-style vehicles, which now make up the lion’s share of all new vehicles sold and are on a trajectory to increase.

Why does this matter? 

To put it simply, pickup trucks and SUVs are two to three times more likely than smaller personal vehicles to kill people walking in the event of a crash. Recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found the share of pedestrian deaths involving trucks, vans, and SUVs has increased from 22 to 44 percent since the mid-1980s. More SUVs and trucks in the fleet = more pedestrian injuries becoming deaths instead.

You don’t need a PhD to see why trucks and SUVs are more likely to kill people walking: They’re taller, have worse visibility, and are more likely to produce head/neck injuries than leg injuries.

graphic showing silhouettes of people comparing size of sedans vs trucks/suvs

A landmark investigative report from the Detroit Free Press in 2018 explored the data in depth, one of the first major media outlets to take a close look at the dangers posed by larger vehicles:

Data analyses by the Free Press/USA TODAY and others show that SUVs are the constant in the increase [in pedestrian deaths] and account for a steadily growing proportion of deaths. Our investigation found: Federal safety regulators have known for years that SUVs, with their higher front-end profile, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers and children they hit, yet have done little to reduce deaths or publicize the danger.

This was foreseeable. In fact, two engineers at Rowan University chillingly predicted our current decades-long increase in deaths of people walking in a 2002 academic study about the impact of trucks and SUVs, one of the first peer-reviewed studies examining the increased danger to people walking posed by larger vehicles.

Today’s trucks and SUVs are also getting larger each year

The second part of this complex problem is that the trucks and SUVs which are growing in number/share are also growing in actual size. The size of larger vehicles has increased dramatically over the past several decades: pickup trucks in particular are nearly 1,256 pounds (32 percent) heavier than they were in 1990.  

Circa 2000 Ford F-150 long bed pickup truck
Photo by IFCAR
2016 F-150 long bed truck
Photo by Kevauto – CC BY-SA 4.0

Circa 2000 Ford F-150 long bed vs. 2016 F-150 long bed.

Their front bumpers are significantly taller, flatter, and visibility is worse across the board (though standard backup cameras have likely helped reduce back-over deaths). Compare the size of one model from 20 years ago versus today and the difference is obvious. These newer models are almost certainly more likely to kill someone walking than a smaller, older model, though we found no comprehensive studies on this specific point.

Circa 2000 Ford F-150 King Ranch SuperCrew pickup truck.
Photo by IFCAR
2016 Ford F-150 Limited SuperCrew pickup truck
Photo by Kevauto, CC BY-SA 4.0

Circa 2000 Ford F-150 King Ranch SuperCrew (top) vs 2016 F-150 Limited SuperCrew.

The impacts of speed may be even more pronounced

Dangerous by Design 2021 includes this frequently used graphic showing the impact of speed on survivability:

Graphic showing the likelihood of death by speed when walking. 20 mph = 5%, 30 mph = 45%, 40 mph = 85%.

One important bit of fine print is that the data behind this graphic (and almost all the other versions you see all over the internet) are sourced from a 1995 European study that predates the significant shift of the vehicle fleet (and increase in size) of the last two decades. This means that, today, it could be that the likelihood of surviving crashes with an “average” vehicle in the US—at all speed levels—could be even worse than the graphic shows, because the “average” vehicle is so much larger today—and getting bigger. 

The federal government has failed to act when it comes to the deadly impacts of ever-larger vehicles

Safety regulators at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) were aware of this problem as early as 2015. As noted in the Free Press report: 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made the connection in 2015 that SUVs were deadlier for pedestrians than cars, referenced on page 90 of a 195-page report. That report, citing 12 independent studies of injury data, said pedestrians are two to three times ‘more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pickup than when struck by a passenger car.’ That report also noted that SUVs and trucks were involved in a third of pedestrian injuries but 40 percent of deaths, indicating that injuries “may be more severe when sustained in collisions with these vehicles.”

That report was in hand when NHTSA issued recommendations in 2018 to revise motor vehicle safety standards to better protect pedestrians, but federal policymakers have so far failed to make any significant changes to the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) to include testing, ratings, or safety standards for people outside a vehicle, whether on foot, bike, or using assistive devices.

Read that again: we do not test for, or even consider, the impact of a new car’s design on potential collisions with human beings not in a vehicle—an action that results in a death more than 6,200 times per year and increasing almost every year.

This U.S. program was once the worldwide leader in evaluating vehicle safety and equipping consumers to make informed decisions, but it’s been lapped by the rest of the world and is woefully out of date. Aaron Gordon at Vice recently took a tremendous deep dive into how NCAP became a footnote that awards what amounts to “participation” trophies to most cars sold in the US:

Today, NCAP’s definition of a “safe” car generally does not include children; adult dummies are used in the majority of tests, and only in the rear seat for the side crash test. It also doesn’t include people outside the car, a major reason why SUVs and pick-ups rate so well on NCAP despite them being a major cause of the surging pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Aside from using crash-avoidance technologies like Euro NCAP does, vehicles could be tested on dummies outside the vehicle just as they are on ones inside to rate the force of impact, but they are currently not. Cars can be designed to be safer if they strike pedestrians by using softer materials on lower bumpers and hoods and incorporating more space between the hoods and engine components, and automakers that opt not to do this will suffer lower safety ratings. ‘It’s actually quite strange an NCAP focuses only on car occupants,’ Van Ratingen said, ‘and only adults in many cases.’

The failure to consider only the safety of people inside of vehicles is one likely reason why overall traffic fatalities have been going down for a decade while deaths of people walking have hit levels not seen in 30 years. We simply don’t consider their safety.

The lack of even the most rudimentary level of testing and assessment to inform consumers is directly contributing to the deaths of people walking. But it’s also setting drivers up to make devastating mistakes: failing to see a child walking until it is too late because of the size of the vehicle they purchased, or killing a person walking in a crash that could otherwise have resulted in injury with a smaller, safer vehicle. For every pedestrian killed, at least three people are forever changed: a victim who dies, the people who loved them, and the person who has to live with the knowledge that they killed someone, regardless of where the fault lies.

So, what can you do? 

In our list of transition recommendations for the Biden administration, we specifically called on USDOT to change the New Car Assessment Program and institute a more holistic approach to safety. There’s nothing stopping USDOT from starting that process now.  We’re keeping track of their progress on this count here, in addition to 13 other notable smart growth-related policies.

In addition to making cars as safe as possible, we must also take action to design streets in a way that prioritizes safety first, and encourages driver focus and awareness. Support the Complete Streets Act by telling your representative that America’s streets are deadly and it’s time for a new approach to street safety at the federal, state, and local level. 

Advocacy Complete Streets Transportation