Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 4
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

The Bigger The Car, The Smaller The Survival

Illustration by Kai Bowen

Take a walk through your neighborhood, and you’re likely to be surrounded by a sea of SUVs and pickup trucks. The ubiquity of these vehicles is not just a coincidence, but a result of loopholes in national automobile standards initially designed to promote safety and minimize pollution. As of October of 2021, over 80 percent of vehicles sold in the United States fall into the category of light trucks and SUVs, a stark contrast to 53 percent in 2011.

The roots of the issue trace back to the 1970s oil crisis, prompting Congress to pass legislation imposing fuel economy standards under the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program. The intention was to reduce dependency on foreign oil in part by establishing financial penalties if manufacturers failed to comply. 

The CAFE restrictions cost auto manufacturers since they had to run safety and crash tests while making their engines more efficient. But a hidden loophole has allowed manufacturers to sidestep these costs, compromising public safety.

Termed the ‘light trucks loophole,’ this exemption applies to vehicles that can carry more than ten people, transport property on an open bed, or have three rows of foldable seats. The legal definition includes vans, most modern minivans and pick-up trucks.

Originally intended for off-road use by farmers and construction workers, this loophole has been exploited, with SUVs and pickups becoming the norm for suburbia.

The consequences of the loophole are deadly. Pedestrians struck by SUVs face fatality risks three times higher than in collisions with regular passenger vehicles. If you’re in a regular passenger vehicle, you’re more likely to die in a crash if it’s with an SUV. Same goes for pickups. The limited visibility, large frames and unwieldiness of these vehicles contribute to their higher fatality rates. 

A distinguishing feature of light trucks is the elevated bumper height since they are exempt from height restrictions. In collisions, victims hit by standard cars tend to roll over the vehicle, sustaining injuries primarily to the lower body. The higher ground clearance and massive bumper size of SUVs means victims injure their full body, and can subsequently get rolled over (rather than going over). The risk of fatality drastically increases

A fatal incident involving fourteen-month-old Harper Rodden highlights the gravity of this loophole. Harper lost her life when struck by an SUV whose driver failed to notice her presence. In a subsequent experiment by the Kids and Cars advocacy group and KMBC 9’s News anchor Donna Pitman, eighteen young children were lined up in front of an SUV, and the driver couldn’t see a single child. The increase in light truck sales has corresponded with a rise in “front overs,” where drivers (usually parents), unable to see directly in front of their vehicles, accidentally run over a person (usually their own child). 

The automobile industry’s research on SUV buyers reveals alarming trends. SUV drivers are more likely to be status-obsessed, less connected to their communities and prone to risky behavior such as texting while driving. 

In Walla Walla, 39 percent of fatal and serious crashes from 2016-2021 involved pedestrians, bicyclists, or other vulnerable road users. When vehicles take up more road space, other travelers are pushed to the edges, increasing the risk of an accident. In today’s cartopia, pedestrians and cyclists are lucky if a sidewalk or bike lane is even an option. 

The Walla Walla Central Safety Action Plan (CSAP) provides a roadmap for prioritizing safety needs at high-risk intersections and segments. This initiative is a step in the right direction, but ultimately, our cities and towns need to be reshaped to foster safer and more sustainable communities. Urban planners should take inspiration from cities like Amsterdam, which have car-free zones and separate bike tracks. In the meantime, consumers should be aware of the risks of SUVs and pickup trucks. Consider alternatives like the humble station wagon, which offers more space, enhanced safety features and is perfect for road trips. The road towards safer and more sustainable transportation requires thoughtful city planning, consumer awareness and better government regulations. 

Writer’s note: My knowledge of this topic started with a video from Not Just Bikes. Check out the channel for more interesting topics on cities and car-centricity. 

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  • C

    Carroll ShelbyJan 20, 2024 at 1:46 pm

    Lily, there is actually a far more important factor than fuel economy loopholes in the increase in SUV ownership from the 70s to now. In fact, with the popularity of turbocharged, small displacement, highly efficient and nonemittive engines today, I’d venture to say that CAFE regulations are no longer the reason automakers favor SUV production.

    First off, CAFE standards have been drastically relaxed since the 1970s – actually they were most stringent in the 1970s, the decade BEFORE the birth of the modern SUV. By the 1980s CAFE standards were far less relevant, and you can see this in the reintroduction of some of the more iconic American muscle cars. But something else had come to the fore – consumer safety culture! Lily, you should look into the role that Ralph Nader’s 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed” played in the creation of the NHTSA, and the way so many of his points were actually invalidated by empirical testing.

    Basically, the 80s were the decade of Stranger Danger, White Flight, and a whole bunch of other “public safety” hoaxes/scare campaigns by Reaganites. This bled over into consumer buying habits, so people started to prioritize crash safety way more than before. One of the most effective ways to reduce occupant fatality rates when designing a vehicle is to increase its mass. The heavier the car, the less it decelerates when it hits another object. Famously, when you’re in a car crash, it’s not how fast you’re going that kills you, it’s how quickly you come to a sudden stop! And we can see that the demand for more crash safety still principally motivates car buyers today, with the growing list of safety features that people are coming to expect in a new or used car (backup cameras, lane departure warnings, blindspot cameras (which are only necessary because of B pillars, made mandatory by rollover safety standards)). So the real culprit behind the increase in pedestrian fatalities from car crashes is risk-averse automotive consumers. And hey, not to get all playfully misogynistic, but we all know who tends to be more risk averse in society, and who also has a substantial role in making major financial decisions in family life such as car purchases. Women! So I think there is a very interesting intersection of the kind of tacit demise of the 1960s Feminist movement, the shift from a culture concerned primarily with progress, abundance, and glamour to one concerned with self-protection, consumer safety, and “responsibility”, and changes in automotive culture that is MUCH richer than the story Not Just Bikes knows how to tell!

  • J

    julie carterDec 7, 2023 at 9:44 am

    This is an excellent article. I was unaware of the degree of danger and significant research on the topic. It affirms my cautiousness on the road near these vehicles and the “out-of-my-way” attitude I feel from the drivers at times.
    Considering the costs to cities for necessary urban planning adjustments to make streets safer because of the proliferation of SUV and larger pick-up trucks, perhaps a municipal tax should be charged for those owners who do not need such vehicles for their occupations. I believe it is possible to strike a balance between individual desire and the impact on the community. Perhaps Walla Walla could consider this and it might be a model for other cities.