How to Stop Trucks and SUVs from Killing So Many People

It’s not something a lot of car enthusiasts want to talk about, but pedestrian safety is a serious issue in this country. As Car and Driver has reported, pedestrian deaths have been increasing year-over-year since 2009. Drivers also killed more than 6,500 people, making it the most dangerous year for pedestrians in 30 years.

And while it’s a common trope that distracted pedestrians have brought this on themselves from looking at their phones and listening to music, that’s not as significant of a factor as a lot of people think. The same report explains it’s also because drivers are more distracted and driving more dangerous vehicles. Specifically, trucks and SUVs. You’re more than twice as likely to die if you get hit by an SUV than you are if you get hit by a car. We don’t, however, have to accept our roads being this dangerous.

And a car website has the solution to this problem?

Recently, David Zipper, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s school of public policy, shared a thread on Twitter that outlined how he would approach the problem of large vehicles killing so many people. As Zipper notes in his bio, his work focuses on the future of cities. So hopefully, it’s clear by now that he’s not just some random writer with an internet connection.

Anyway, as Zipper notes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s New Car Assessment Program tests new vehicles to see how safe they are. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also gives cars safety ratings, but it’s a different, private, organization. And since safety is something a lot of buyers look for, it’s important to get a good safety rating. According to Zipper, the NHTSA is the key to this whole thing.

Pedestrian safety is important, too

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “You get the results you measure,” you may see where we’re going here. NCAP tests focus on passenger safety, which leads to pedestrian safety being neglected. If you’re inside a car, that’s great, but if someone drives their car into you, that’s a lot less good.

It’s also not like automakers love killing pedestrians. We’ve seen all kinds of advancements in recent years, from pedestrian-detecting automatic emergency braking systems to softer engine covers that offer better cushioning on impact. But while European safety tests include pedestrians and cyclists, it’s not as easy to get customers to pay extra for those features in the U.S. where they’re not mandated.

It’s the NHTSA to the rescue then

Zipper also points out that the NHTSA has admitted it needs to update the NCAP. Unfortunately for Americans who spend some of their time outside of cars, we’ve seen very little progress over the last four years. In fact, earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office told the NHTSA it was time to either put up or shut up.

OK, the GAO was a little more diplomatic than that. What the memo actually said was, “In 2015, NHTSA proposed including these tests in its new car assessment program, but hasn’t made a decision on how to move forward or set a timeline for that to happen. We recommended they decide.” Good point, GAO. Good point.

NCAP updates won’t happen overnight

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Tesla Cybertruck | Tesla

Why You Absolutely Need Airbags in Trucks

One of the downsides of the NHTSA trying to make roads safer with new pedestrian tests is that these changes can’t happen overnight. Getting the final wording officially approved will take long enough as it is. But on top of that, it also takes automakers years to design a new car. A new regulation announced tomorrow couldn’t reasonably go into effect before the next presidential election.

That said, the NHTSA could easily announce its timeline and a summary of what the new tests will evaluate. At least that would let automakers know what they’ll need to start working on to make sure their cars pass future tests. Plus work on bringing down the cost of new technologies that will make their cars safer for pedestrians.

Even better, since we’re talking about a test to earn a rating from a government agency, Zimmer points out that this can be done without Congress. So there’s no need for an actual bill to be drawn up, voted on, and then killed in the Senate. Will it actually happen, though? That’s up to the new administration.