Public Raises Weighty Issue in Car Safety Rating Update
You know how scary driving in urban traffic can be. You also sense that you’re safer in a bigger, heavier vehicle equipped with modern safety devices.
But should there be limits on how big an automobile can be? Numerous Americans concerned about the growing size gap they see on our roads recently urged the U.S. government to restrict the production of ever-larger cars, trucks, and SUVs.
Citizens “Terrified” by Growing Size Gap
They were commenting on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s proposal to update the New Car Assessment Program. This is the government’s crash testing program that generates the 5-Star Safety Ratings you see on stickers at the dealership.
Given the chance to voice concern about safety on our roadways, one man wrote:
“Standing in front of any newer model (e.g. Ram 1500 or Chevy Silverado), the front hood is almost as tall as I am – and I’m around 6’ tall! It’s frankly terrifying. It’s terrifying driving next to these things in a regular car. It’s more terrifying as a pedestrian and cyclist.” (Excerpt from https://www.regulations.gov/comment/NHTSA-2021-0002-0251)
And this commenter has good reason to be scared. The bigger the difference in vehicle weights, the more unequal the risk of fatality in a two-vehicle crash, regardless of seat belts, airbags, and vehicle design.
When a car collides with a pickup, SUV, or minivan, car occupants absorb more of the crash’s energy than occupants in the larger vehicles. As a result, car occupants died 3 times more often than the other occupants in these two-vehicle collisions in 2019.
The car industry dryly refers to this imbalance in fatality risk as incompatibility. In 2016, over a dozen vehicle makers signed a voluntary agreement to reduce their vehicle’s’ incompatibilities. That included beefing up the protection for occupants in cars (e.g., more airbags) and re-designing bumpers on pickups, SUVs, and minivans to better align them with those of cars.
A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did find some improvements related to those changes. That is, fewer car occupants were dying in crashes with SUVs and smaller pickups. But the larger pickups were still causing more deaths in cars.
Regulators Must Curb Plans for Even Larger, Faster Vehicles
Today’s trucks are typically about 1,000-2,000 pounds heavier than cars, but in the most extreme case can be more than 5,000 heavier. There’s no end in sight to this disturbing gap. Edmunds.com has reported that bigger vehicles are the overwhelming favorite of pickup truck buyers. In 2019, 80% of pickup trucks sold had extended, 4-door cabs.
Electrifying these vehicles will only make the problem worse. New technology is making it possible for drivers to accelerate 0-60 mph at alarming rates: Tesla’s Cybertruck in 2.9 seconds, General Motors’ Electric-powered Hummer in 3 seconds and Ford’s F-150 Lighting™ in about 4 seconds (estimated).
But no one is talking about the stopping distance of these behemoths. Unless these vehicles are substantially lighter in weight, electric vehicles take the same amount of stopping power as combustion-powered vehicles. They may accelerate faster, but they can’t stop faster. It’s simple physics.
And these larger vehicles are so big that drivers can’t see much of what’s in front of them. Such frontal blind spots are putting the most vulnerable road users, pedestrians and cyclists, at greater risk.
The government proposes to expand its 5-Star Safety System to include a rating of new automated driver assistance systems. That’s an important step in the right direction to prevent some of these crashes. But the federal regulators need to go further.
The government has the power to limit the size and acceleration of vehicles manufactured in the United States. At this critical moment, regulators need to throw their weight behind saving thousands of lives and injuries rather than appeasing the industry.
Because safety on the road should be a right, not a matter of have and have not.