By Michael Brenneis
Safety advocates have long sought modal parity in American road safety standards. As improving vehicle safety features make driving safer for vehicle occupants, lagging road design improvements and increasingly aggressive car design create hazards for everyone else. At long last, advocates say, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has proposed changing the way it rates new cars to identify those that are the most dangerous to pedestrians and bicyclists.
The new pass/fail rating system represents a stop-gap measure designed to supplement the current five-star rating system while the agency works to overhaul its entire rating practice, as Daniel Vock wrote recently. According to its literature, NHTSA seeks to model new safety ratings after those currently in place in Europe, which are more weighted toward pedestrian and cyclist safety. Some commenters raised concerns that the ratings will only be listed on the website—not posted directly on new vehicles—and that the agency is moving too slowly in the face of rising pedestrian deaths.
The proposed ratings are also an example of feedback possibly making a difference. When NHTSA put out a call for comments on updating its rating systems, more than 15,000 people, cities, and organizations responded—many calling for a measure that would address a car’s risk to pedestrians and bicyclists.
We’ve known for years that the proliferation of SUVs and other heavy cars with high, flat front ends poses a higher risk to pedestrians and bicyclists. Deaths involving trucks, vans, and SUVs have increased roughly 20% since the mid-1980s. When hit by a sedan, people may go up onto the hood rather than being hit higher—in vital areas of the body—by an SUV, and potentially going under the vehicle with increased risk of death.
Large vehicles also tend to be powerful enough to achieve high speeds quickly, and have more extensive blind zones that make safely navigating active urban environments more difficult.
At the same time we’re seeing a surge of pedestrian deaths, cars continue to be designed without considering pedestrian safety. Roads continue to be designed to accommodate speeds above the posted limit, and many areas where people most depend on walking to get around continue to lack proper pedestrian facilities. The tenets of Vision Zero and Complete Streets, adopted by a growing number of cities, continue to be in conflict with automakers’ renewed focus on providing large vehicles for everyday use, both gas and electric, to the American market.
Regardless of the outcome of future changes to the five-star rating system—or other levers to bring vehicle sizes under control—given that it takes decades for the auto fleet to turn over, we’ll be seeing vehicles designed without a care for pedestrian safety on our roads for many years to come.