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Automakers Must Address Americans’ Deadly Addiction to SUVs

Op-ed: It is time that we bring an end to this tragic trend and hold the automobile manufacturers accountable for putting larger and more lethal vehicles on our streets. 

SUV that has been in a crash

(Photo by Tony Webster / CC BY 2.0)

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Carol Langdon, 72, was walking through the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, in the Senator’s district, when she had the misfortune of passing in front of a Volkswagen dealership.

Crossing her path — literally the sidewalk, as it overlapped with the auto dealer — was the driver of a brand new Volkswagen Atlas SUV.

Carol, who was well known in the neighborhood and used to attend the Senator’s senior picnics, was one of eight pedestrians killed in Brooklyn in April 2021 alone. It was a record high for any April in the borough of Brooklyn since the launch of Vision Zero, a plan to end traffic deaths, in 2014.

Across our neighborhoods, it is too easy to write off these tragedies as an accident or a wrong-place-wrong-time incident. This was neither. Carol’s death is part of an alarming national trend of pedestrians and cyclists killed on American streets.

Pedestrian fatalities have increased almost 50 percent nationally over the last decade. A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association shows 2020 saw the biggest ever annual increase in pedestrian deaths per mile driven: 21 percent. Increasingly, humans are being killed by drivers of SUVs — the type of car that struck and killed Carol before its owner even had a chance to dirty the wheels.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, pedestrians who are struck by an SUV are 2.5 to three times more likely to be killed, a disparity that has been confirmed by separate research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Detroit Free Press.

Since 2010, consumers have gravitated toward larger, higher-riding vehicles, helped along by a barrage of advertising and Detroit’s disinvestment from less-profitable sedans. In 2020, SUVs and pickup trucks accounted for three-quarters of new vehicle sales nationally. New data obtained by Transportation Alternatives shows SUVs increasingly dominate the vehicle mix in New York City as well. Between 2018 and 2019, SUVs surpassed sedans as the majority of vehicles registered to residents of every borough. It’s hard to believe that more than six in every ten personal vehicles in one of the densest and most transit-rich cities in the country is an SUV, but here in NYC, it’s now true.

But some of the same features that make people feel safe in an SUV, are deadly for people outside the car. Not only are SUVs heavier, their higher frames mean their front ends strike pedestrians higher on the body, in the chest or abdomen, where blunt force trauma is more likely to be deadly. Across New York City, we see these larger cars increasingly involved in fatal crashes with bicyclists and pedestrians. The share of fatalities involving SUVs in New York City has increased 55 percent for cyclists and 47 percent for pedestrians compared to the share during Mayor de Blasio’s first term from 2013 to 2017.

It is time that we bring an end to this tragic trend and hold the automobile manufacturers accountable for putting larger and more lethal vehicles on our streets.

That is why the Vehicle Safety Rating and Labeling bill has been introduced by the Senator in the New York State Senate, with Assemblymember Nily Rozic introducing the same in the New York State Assembly. The bill would require the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles to rate vehicles based on how safe they are for people around the vehicle — like cyclists and pedestrians — not just how safe they are for people inside the vehicle. . The vehicles would receive a five-star rating that would be displayed at the point of sale and online, much like we do with fuel efficiency ratings. This bill is part of a larger package of reforms that Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets are advocating for this legislative session in Albany. The Crash Victim Rights and Safety Act promises to improve safety for all New Yorkers and help ensure justice for those who are killed or injured in traffic crashes.

This kind of safety rating is already standard in Europe and parts of Asia. Many of these leading countries achieve safety outcomes that are as many as four or five times better than ours on a per-capita basis. In fact, something similar, a rating for vehicles based on pedestrian impacts, was proposed in 2015 by the Obama Administration, but, unfortunately, was not advanced under President Trump.

However, safety ratings to inform consumers can only go so far. Automakers are directly responsible for the growing wave of traffic violence on our streets. By engaging in an arms race of ever larger, more powerful and higher-riding vehicles, automakers are actively contributing to the epidemic of traffic deaths in the United States. Vehicles with known safety problems like ultra-large pickups with large front blind zones ought to be required to have additional sensor technology, like automatic pedestrian detection. Automakers ought to shrink vehicle sizes so they are lower to the ground, lighter, and less deadly. We want to see a future where automakers are racing to deliver the safest vehicles on the road – for people both in the car and out on the street. These goals are not necessarily in competition.

While the greatest responsibility lies with automakers themselves, we have an opportunity in New York right now to shift consumer behavior when it comes to buying SUVs. Elected officials and advocates can help protect and inform consumers. We hope for Carol’s memory, and for all the other people whose lives might be saved, that the state legislature will approve the entire Crash Victim Rights and Safety Act before June. We also demand that automakers make pedestrian and cyclist safety a key value in vehicle design. We need them to stop building and marketing cars built to kill our most vulnerable.

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Andrew Gounardes represents New York's 22nd State Senate District.

Danny Harris is executive director of Transportation Alternatives.

Tags: carspedestrian safety

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