Home Ground design SUVs protect drivers, but make others less safe. How to change this?

SUVs protect drivers, but make others less safe. How to change this?

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This story is part of Uytae Lee’s story Stories from here, an original series with the CBC Creator Network. You can watch all episodes of this series on CBC Gem.


An SUV is two to three times more likely to kill a pedestrian in a crash than a regular car, according to a 2015 report from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Why?

It’s a design problem.

A key characteristic of an SUV is that it is taller than other types of cars. This means that if it hits a pedestrian, its bumper collides with the person’s rib cage and vital organs.

But more importantly, the vehicle hits a person’s center of gravity directly, meaning it’s more likely to push the pedestrian forward and crush them.

Compare that to a sedan: with its lower height, it’s more likely to cut off a pedestrian’s legs and send them flying off its hood, which is designed to bounce around like a metal trampoline. Still very painful, but not as deadly.

This difference is concerning as SUVs are becoming very popular. In 2020, the light-duty truck segment, which includes SUVs, pickups and vans, accounted for 80% of new car sales in Canada, according to Statistics Canada — a share that has grown over the past decade.

At the same time, sedan sales fell by cliffrepresenting barely 20% of new vehicles sold in 2020.

Increase in pedestrian fatalities

Meanwhile, pedestrian fatalities are on the rise.

According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada reported a 5.6% increase in pedestrian fatalities between 2010 and 2018, while fatalities of cyclists, drivers and motorcyclists all experienced a decrease.

But this trend is really apparent when you look at data from the United States. Pedestrian fatalities there had been declining since the 1980s, but over the past decade have been up sharply againaccording to figures from the Governors Highway Safety Association, which monitors road safety.

In 2020, light trucks, including SUVs, pickups and vans, accounted for 80% of new car sales in Canada, while sedan sales accounted for just 20%. (Uytae Lee/Stories from Here)

And according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, while SUVs only account for about a third of collisions with pedestrians, they are responsible for almost 40% of fatalities.

Yet people buy SUVs for a reason. Ironically, one of the main reasons is security.

An automobile “arms race”

In a study of deaths by vehicles between 2015 and 2018, sedans recorded 48 deaths per million owners each year. That number for SUVs was nearly half, at 25 deaths per million owners.

The bigger the vehicle, the lower the risk of death for its passengers. This can be seen for other large vehicles, like minivans and pickup trucks.

Similarly, smaller cars were more likely to be deadlier cars. The deadliest car in the study was the Ford Fiesta, a mini-sedan that recorded 141 deaths per million owners each year.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which authored the study, puts it bluntly: “A larger, heavier vehicle provides better crash protection than a smaller, lighter vehicle, assuming no there is no other difference.”

The SUV is a bigger car, which makes it a safer car. So drivers are buying bigger cars, which are more dangerous for smaller cars, leading to what economist Michelle Wright has called an “arms race” in vehicle sales.

So how can we make our roads safer, not just for large SUV drivers, but for everyone?

Discover in Stories from Here: The SUV Problem.

About this series

Stories from here is an original series with the CBC Creator Network that explores the urban planning challenges facing communities across Canada today. In each episode, we delve into often-overlooked issues in our own backyards – whether it’s the shortage of public toilets, leaking sewers into water, or the bureaucratic roots of the housing crisis. Through it all, we hope to inspire people to become more informed and engaged members of their communities.

You can watch all episodes of this series on CBC Gem.