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Driving is a daily danger to American life. And it is getting more dangerous.
More Americans died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2021 than any other year since 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Additionally, pedestrian fatalities are up 13% and bicyclist fatalities are up 5% compared to 2020.
These are lower rates than the European Union, which has seen traffic fatalities decrease since 2019.
What is happening on American roads?
Are drivers becoming worse? Are the sizing size of SUVs and passenger trucks – “megacars” – responsible? What about vehicle and road safety?
Let’s explore the facts to find an answer.
Drivers and Traffic Fatalities
U.S. traffic fatality rate rose 10.5% from 2020 to 2021, a year after rising 24.5% from 2019 to 2020.
But beyond comparing annual changes in traffic deaths, it also important to consider how much Americans drive.
This metric is known as vehicle miles traveled.
The estimated fatality rates for 2020 and 2021 were 1.34 and 1.33 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), respectively, up drastically from the recent peak of 1.19 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2016. Compare this to 1.10 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2011.
The driver is an easy party to blame.
Speeding-related fatalities increased in both 2020 and 2021.
However, blaming the driver alone is not enough to explain the drastic increase in fatalities.
The built environment, to include roadway engineering plays a role in traffic safety.
Roadway Engineering and Traffic Fatalities
Traffic safety is a factor of traffic volume and traffic speed, and traffic volume and traffic speed are products of roadway engineering and design.
After all, crashes are not happening on random roadways. Rather, 60% of traffic deaths in Houston occurred on 6% of Houston roadways, for example, and 33% of severe pedestrian injury crashes in San Antonio occurred on 1% of San Antonio roadways.
The problem today is twofold and cyclical.
First, roadway engineering has prioritized the convenience of people driving over the safety for all road users.
Transportation planners, engineers, and decisionmakers have treated drivers like “guests of honor” on our roadways to the detriment of all other “guests.” This is how Melissa and Chris Bruntlett explain it in their new book, Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives.
This is evidenced in continued reliance on one of the oldest criterion for setting speed limits, how fast 85% of drivers are driving.
Crash reports, pedestrian and bicycle volume, business and residential density are not required criteria for setting speed limits.
That’s why, last year, 25,000 public comments were submitted to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) from municipal governments, advocacy organizations, and individuals regarding updates to one of transportation engineering’s “bibles,” the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).
Many mentioned the inadequacies of the 85th percentile speed setting criterion.
Second, roadway engineering and design are both consequences of and contributors to our sprawling built environment.
Multi-lane thoroughfares with limited intersections are designed to support sprawl, but it is these very roads that encourage higher traffic volumes and traffic speeds and these very roads that see more crashes.
This is the cyclical part.
Thus, to accommodate for shortcomings in roadway design, there has been a focus on making vehicles safer.
Vehicle safety standards, however, have failed Americans since the design and mass production of megacars.
Megacars and Traffic Fatalities
Vehicle design is perhaps the most critical reason for the recent spike in traffic fatalities.
Even if drivers are driving well and roadways are engineered safely, vehicle design can be the difference between death and injury.
This is particularly true in growing size of American SUVs and passenger trucks, called “megacars.”
Megacars are the difference between worsening traffic safety in America and improved traffic safety in many other developed countries, experts say.
And it all began with the New Car Assessment Program.
History of the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP)
In 1970, the Highway Safety Act established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
NHTSA is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes.
To achieve this, NHTSA sets and enforces safety performance standards for motor vehicles.
NHTSA should not be confused with the following:
- The National Safety Council (NSC), a nonprofit safety advocacy organization that raises awareness about and advocates for change to eliminate the leading causes of preventable death and injury, including roadway deaths and injuries.
- The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an independent, nonprofit scientific and education organization dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries, and property damage from motor vehicle crashes through research, evaluation, and education.
- The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating significant crashes on highways to determine probable cause and issue safety recommendations.
NHTSA, as a vehicle safety regulatory agency, set rules on various safety standards required by auto manufacturers, such as performance standards on air bag crash tests and rear safety crash tests.
However, auto manufacturers were not conducting tests properly or at the proper vehicle speeds.
Worse, the results were not making it to the consumer.
In 1973, the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act mandated a consumer information study to inform consumers about the relative crashworthiness of automobiles.
To achieve this, NHTSA established the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) in 1979, spearheaded by Joan Claybrook, to conduct their own crash tests, according to a 2019 report from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
With the help of Jack Gillis, Claybrook developed a booklet with crash test information for all makes and models tested by NHTSA.
The next year, they released “The Car Book, A Consumer’s Guide to Car Buying.”
Stalled Progress Around the NCAP
However, upon the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, who opposed government regulation, Claybrook and Gillis left NHTSA. Reagan announced he was discontinuing the publication of NCAP’s The Car Book, according to the 2019 report.
So, Gillis took it upon himself to self-publish The Car Book. He released the 40th Anniversary Edition in 2020.
The idea was to incentivize auto manufacturers to exceed minimum safety requirements.
“It has allowed consumers to vote with their dollars for safer cars, using the market to force carmakers to make improvements,” said Gillis, leader of the Consumer Federation of America.
Other countries were inspired by the U.S. to adopt similar new car safety assessment programs.
However, under Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr., from 1981 to 1992, NHTSA only issued one new safety standard and took no actions to expand NCAP safety tests.
In 1993, NCAP introduced the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program to relay information about vehicle safety to vehicle owners and buyers. In 2007, vehicle manufacturers were required to affix a vehicle safety rating label to a new vehicle’s price sticker.
Although the Obama administration proposed upgrades, they were not implemented before the Trump administration, which shelved them.
Thus, NCAP’s 5-Star Safety Ratings Program stalled. It has fallen behind newer safety programs in other countries.
For example, the U.S. NCAP only includes five tests in its ratings, according to the 2019 report from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety:
- Full width rigid frontal barrier test to test frontal occupant protection
- Side impact moving deformable barrier test
- Side impact rigid pole test to examine occupant side impact protection
- Measurement of the vehicle’s static stability factor
- Dynamic handling test to evaluate rollover resistance
The safety ratings program fails to consider female physiology and megacars in crash tests and does not consider safety for people outside the vehicle, like people struck while walking or biking.
Compare this to the Euro NCAP, which started nearly 20 years after the U.S. NCAP.
The Euro NCAP has 21 tests in its ratings, including the first three from the U.S. NCAP above, as well as:
- Child occupant protection in frontal and side crashes
- Three tests for pedestrian head and leg impact protection
- Four tests for child seat installation and occupant protection
- Advanced driver assisted system forward collision warning for people walking and biking
One city in Germany is pushing to raise the parking fee for megacars 600%.
The side impact moving deformable barrier test, also known as side crash tests, provides a good example of how the U.S. NCAP is failing to account for the female physiology and the growth of megacars.
4 Ways a Vehicle Side Crash Tests Are Falling Short
Through NCAP, NHTSA began testing and rating vehicles for side impact protection in 1996.
Vehicle side crash tests are performed with an average-size adult male in the driver seat and a 3,015-pound SUV-like barrier crashing into the driver-side of the vehicle at 38.5 mph, according to NHTSA.
There are many problems with this.
1. Using an average-size adult male in testing is inadequate because it neglects women, pregnant women, the elderly, and various other body types.
Women, for example, have been licensed to drive vehicles at nearly the same rate as men since the early 1990s. On average, women are smaller than men, which may increase their risk of death and injury in a crash.
However, there may be other factors at play beyond size.
Females are at greater risk of death and injury than males, even after controlling for age, height, body mass index, and vehicle model year according to one study.
“NHTSA discriminates against non-average-male individuals by failing to require crash testing to take into account different body anatomies,” according to Families for Safe Streets NCAP Fact Sheet and Call to Action.
Regardless of gender, when safety standards are based on a universal approach using the average-size adult male, the safety standards fail protect everyone below that size.
Rather than a universal approach to the size of vehicle occupants, we need a targeted approach to size. After all, if the vehicle is safe for a below-average-size older adult, adults who are younger and/or above-average-size will also benefit.
Moreover, crash tests should consider other occupants in the vehicle.
2. Using a 3,015-pound SUV-like barrier in testing is inadequate because the weight of SUVs—and passenger trucks—have increased drastically in the past decade.
For example, the 2022 Ford F-150 weighs 4,021 to 5,740 pounds. The 2022 Dodge Ram 1500 weighs 4,768 to 6,396 pounds. Both trucks are Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) 2022 Top Safety Picks.
It isn’t just large SUVs and passenger trucks that have gotten heavier.
Electric cars are heavier, too.
Half of the electric vehicles on the road today are between 3,300 and 4,400 pounds, according to Motor Hills. For example, Volvo’s midsized S60 sedan, which is one of IIHS’s 2022 Top Safety Picks, weighs 4,463 pounds.
3. Beyond weight, using an SUV-like barrier is inadequate because the height of hoods/bumpers on SUVs and passenger trucks have increased drastically in the past decade and shape has become more blunted.
Rather than a universal approach to the height and weight of the barrier used in side crash tests, we need a targeted approach.
After all, if passengers in a vehicle are safe from a 6,396-pound Dodge Ram with a high, blunt bumper/hood, they are also safe from all lighter vehicles with lower, sloped bumpers/hoods.
4. Using a barrier traveling at 38.5 mph in testing is inadequate because speeding-related fatalities continue to increase.
NCAP’s 5-Star Safety Rating Program should ensure that all crash test protocols evaluate the dangers of vehicle bumpers/hoods of different sizes, heights, and designs at different speeds, whether in side crashes, frontal crashes, or in crashes with people walking and biking.
When looking at the physics of motion, the big variables are mass and speed. When something is heavy and/or move fast, it can cause more damage.
Failing to Consider Safety for Those Outside the Vehicle
Not only can a megacar cause more damage when it strikes the side of another vehicle, which is equipped with various safety features, but a heavier vehicle can also more damage to a person walking or biking.
“Large vehicles are 2 to 3 times more likely to kill a pedestrian than smaller models due to their weight, height, and aggressive front-end vehicle design – all of these factors inflict more damage on the internal organs, heads, and necks of walkers than lighter lower-profiles cars which are more likely to strike a pedestrian’s lower extremities,” according to Families for Safe Streets.
Additionally, many design features of megacars have created more/worse blind spots.
Blind spots increase the likelihood of striking a person or another vehicle.
“For instance, the massive blind zones of the 2021 Ford F-150, one of the most popular new cars sold in the U.S today, can fit a staggering 578 preschoolers if they crowd close together, according to a calculator sponsored by USDOT,” according to Kea Wilson with Streetsblog USA.
“That means that the physical design of megacars themselves may be increasing the likelihood of their drivers’ hitting walkers — and when that happens, those cars are generally about two to three times more likely to kill.”
This isn’t new information.
The laws of motion have been around since the late 1600s. Understanding about kinetic energy began in the mid-1800s.
“Federal safety regulators have known for years that SUVs, with their higher front-end profile, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers and children they hit, yet have done little to reduce deaths or publicize the danger,” according to an investigation by the Detroit Free Press/USA TODAY.
The problem is, NCAP only considers the safety of those inside the vehicle. NCAP does not account for crashes with people walking or biking in their safety ratings.
Beyond shortcomings with side crash tests and beyond the failure to consider the dangers vehicles pose to people outside the vehicle, there are many other shortcomings with NCAPs 5-Star Safety Rating Program, such as inadequate safety standards regarding advanced driver assistance systems.
“Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) refer to a variety of vehicle safety technologies that use onboard radar, camera, and other sensors to scan the vehicle’s surroundings and either alert the driver or automatically intercede on the driver’s behalf to prevent or mitigate a wide range of crash types,” according to from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).
However, these new technologies are less effective at detecting people – particularly children and people of color – who are walking and biking in low light, in inclement weather, and at vehicle speeds greater than 40 MPH.
Advanced safety technologies are not enough to reduce pedestrian fatalities.
Experts say the NHTSA needs a multi-layer approach, much like a public health approach, to include the Swiss Cheese Model of risk reduction, explained below.
NCAP Going Through an Upgrade
In 2015, NHTSA proposed pedestrian crash avoidance and mitigation tests, and in 2019, NHTSA requested comments on pedestrian crash avoidance protocols.
Then, in 2022, NHTSA proposed major upgrades to NCAP and issued a request for public comments.
Many health and safety advocates found their upgrades insufficient and submitted comments to that effect, including members of the Salud America! network at UT Health San Antonio.
Families for Safe Streets developed an NCAP Fact Sheet and Call to Action with messaging to fuel comments to NHTSA.
“NHTSA’s NCAP falls short in many egregious ways, including: vehicle weight/hood size, detection systems for vulnerable road users, Driver Monitoring Systems and Intelligent Speed Assistance, female and child occupants, and rating system,” according to the fact sheet.
Recommendations for NCAP
Advocates have some recommendations to improve the proposed NCAP.
To receive an NCAP 5-Star Safety Rating, vehicles should also receive scores in:
- Crashworthiness/survivability for people outside the vehicle
- Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) features capable of sensing and protecting people outside vehicles
- Direct visibility from the driver’s seat
NCAP should consider public health and safe system approaches that adopt three levels of prevention strategies: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
- Primary prevention strategies emphasize systemic change to improve outcomes for entire populations by preventing risk factors and increasing protective factors, such as setting and enforcing vehicle safety standards based on a universal approach to protect all road users, to including ensuring advanced driver assistance systems sense all people outside the vehicle and improving vehicle design to reduce blind spots to prevent crashes from occurring; and reducing vehicle size and weight to reduce kinetic energy in the case of a crash to reduce the damage caused by the crash. Secondary prevention strategies detect risk factors and target interventions to prevent the extent and severity of negative outcomes, such as setting and enforcing vehicle safety standards based on a targeted approach to protect vulnerable road users, to include standards based on crash tests using above-average-size, above-average-weight, and above-average-speed barriers, as well as below-average-size occupants and non-occupants.
- Tertiary prevention strategies manage negative outcomes after they have occurred, such as identifying trends in vehicle shape, weight, and speed in pedestrian injuries and fatalities and targeting safety improvements, like manufacturer recalls towards those vehicles and driver education towards the drivers of those vehicles.
This philosophy is at the center of the Safe System Approach in transportation safety.
Furthermore, the Swiss Cheese Model of risk reduction offers a helpful visual depiction of how a variety of strategies work together to prevent traffic fatalities and injuries.
Each strategy or intervention has holes, like a slice of swiss cheese, for which risk can slip through. Multiple layers of strategies cover the holes in other strategies which reduces risk and increases protection.
Regarding vehicle safety, some of the slices include:
- Vehicle Design: eliminating blind spots to prevent crashes
- Vehicle Technology: safety technologies to sense people outside the vehicle to prevent crashes
- Vehicle Design: lowering the height of and eliminating blunt bumpers/hoods to reduce damage in a crash
- Vehicle Design: reducing the size and weight of vehicles to reduce kinetic energy thus damage in a crash
Regarding overall transportation safety, additional slices include:
- Urban Design: prioritizing compact, mixed-use land use to reduce the distance between destinations to reduce vehicle miles traveled to reduce the risk of a crash
- Urban Roadway Design: prioritizing narrow streets, traffic calming measures, and frequent intersections to reduce driving speed to reduce both the risk and severity of a crash
- Urban Roadway Design: reducing driving speed and improving sidewalks, bike lands, and public transit to improve multimodal feasibility to reduce vehicle miles traveled to reduce the risk of a crash
- Urban Roadway Design: targeting safety measures in crash hot spot areas to prevent additional crashes
- Personal Responsibility: Not speeding and not driving while distracted, intoxicated, or tired to reduce both the risk and severity of a crash
“NCAP must be updated to guarantee the effectiveness of the program as it has fallen woefully behind international counterparts in robust and comprehensive ratings of vehicle safety,” according to the 2019 report from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.