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With the advent of advanced driver assistance systems, rigorous standards for vehicle impact safety, and big penalties for poor driving, it would seem that American roads are safer than ever. However, the opposite is true, as road deaths have increased in recent years. But what is contributing to American roads being so unsafe? Despite high standards across the board, both vehicle and road design make our roads a scary place to be.

Insight from a U.S. Department of Transportation report

Unsafe American roads lead to crashes like these.
A fatal accident involving two vehicles and multiple pedestrians in New York City | Jeff Bachner/NY Daily News via Getty Images

In a study from 2011 to 2020, the United States Department of Transportation reports 350,000 deaths on American roads. While numbers fell sharply in prior decades, that trend has since reversed. Between 2020 and 2022, road deaths in the U.S. have risen sharply each year. Between 2019 and 2020, the study notes a 7.1 percent increase. In 2021, the number rose a further 10.5 percent, resulting in nearly 43,000 deaths. While NHTSA estimates that 2022 figures will remain flat, American roads are increasingly unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists.

Modern vehicle design is a contributing factor

GMC Sierra 2500 HD truck
The height of a modern truck like this makes visibility difficult | GMC

It’s no secret that cars are getting both bigger and heavier these days. While that can help protect the occupants when a collision occurs, it also leads to more negative outcomes for anything that the vehicle hits.

Basic physics can help explain just what that means, as momentum and force increase with mass and velocity. As vehicles have gotten larger, heavier, and more powerful, the vehicles and people they hit receive more devastating damage. Those effects are multiplied when applied to vulnerable entities like pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists.

In addition, the blunt, high-riding face of modern pickups and SUVs makes these impacts even worse. The hood of a Sierra 2500 pickup is nearly 55 inches from the ground. That’s five feet, seven inches. Considering the average male height in America is five feet, nine inches, the problem becomes quite clear.

Consider a model like the Hummer EV, which has a curb weight of over 9,000 pounds. That’s nearly three times the weight of a Toyota Camry. Someone on foot wouldn’t stand a chance.

Car-centric road design

Multiple lanes and traffic lights make for unsafe roads in America
A Stroad — One of the most dangerous road types in America | Getty Images
Related This Southern State Has the Most Dangerous Roads in America

This Southern State Has the Most Dangerous Roads in America

Not only are American vehicles becoming more brutal, but American road design creates an unsafe environment to start with. Non-profit group Strong Towns is particularly hard on what they call “Stroads”; a combination of street and road that is considered the most dangerous road design.

A “stroad” is all of the high-speed of a major highway with the added risk of traffic lights, cross streets, pedestrians, and cyclists. Parked cars and off-street parking lots don’t help matters, and it’s in this scenario that ST finds creates the high risk of deadly accidents.

The conflagration of factors results in a busy thoroughfare where visibility is limited and the differential in speeds between moving traffic and, well, everything else, is immense. Anyone who has tried to cross one of these American roads on foot can attest that “unsafe” doesn’t covey the terror involved.

We’ve all been in a scenario where a vehicle is simply trying to get into traffic, and inadvertently sticks its nose out in front of a moving vehicle to see around the parked cars. Even worse, that person also blocks the sidewalk, causing further problems.

Now imagine being a cyclist sandwiched between parked cars and 3,000-pound vehicles traveling upwards of 50 mph. One wrong move by anyone and it isn’t hard to imagine the ensuing tragedy.

How can American roads become safer?

So, American roads are unsafe, but what can we do about it? By looking to our Canadian and European friends, we can find solutions to these problems.

One concept that has worked well is the addition of protected bike lanes. Here, the solution is two-fold; a physical barrier protects cyclists and walkers, and vehicles on the road are psychologically incentivized to slow down since the lane is narrower.

Furthermore, improvements to public transportation infrastructure can help pull cars off the road, leading to less congestion and more favorable conditions for those on foot or bike.

Clearly, the current uptick in on-road deaths is untenable. All it takes is a look at our first-world peers to find solutions that will keep everyone safe.