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Should SUVs Get a Pedestrian Warning Label?

Targeting large pickup trucks and SUVs, a New York bill proposes a safety rating system that would rank vehicles on the dangers they pose to pedestrians and cyclists. 

A bill in the New York State senate would establish a statewide pedestrian and cyclist vehicle safety rating system — the first of its kind in the U.S.

Senate Bill S4307 would require the New York Department of Motor Vehicles to create a database rating the safety of every vehicle model sold in the state, using a one-to-five-star scale  similar to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s existing 5-Star Safety Ratings program. But unlike NHTSA’s assessment, the New York program would rank vehicles based on the rate and severity of collisions and injuries reported involving bicyclists and pedestrians for each model, compared to the total number of registrations in the state. Special vehicle safety features such as automatic collision warnings and braking systems would also be included. Auto dealerships would have to display the ratings on cars for sale.

The goal of the bill is to make consumers more aware of the dangers of SUVs and trucks, says New York senator and bill author Andrew Gounardes, who represents parts of Brooklyn. The size, height and poor outward visibility of these vehicles have been identified as major factors in rising fatality rates of vulnerable road users. In 2019, 25 out of 29 New York City cyclists killed on the road were killed by drivers of large trucks, buses, SUVs or vans, according to the bill. 

“Most people aren’t primed to think about the impact that their vehicle purchases have on the greater safety of people in the environment around them,” said Gounardes. “We hope this will help educate people in a way that will help them see the consequences of their choices.”

SUVs and pickup trucks are an enduring American obsession. Ford’s F-150 pickup has been the most popular vehicle sold in the U.S. since 1981, and SUV sales likely surpassed 50% market share last year. They draw buyers even in the densely packed streets of places like New York City: SUVs have grown nearly 10% as a share of all personal vehicles in the city since 2016, according to DMV data provided by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. 

Yet as manufacturers expand the size and shape of some vehicles, the risks to non-drivers are growing. A 2010 research review found that pedestrians stand a 50% greater risk of getting killed when hit by SUVs, trucks or minivans than in collisions with conventional cars. A 2020 study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety drew similar results. 

Trucks and SUVs are thus believed to be a significant factor behind recent upticks of pedestrian and cyclist deaths nationwide. Even though U.S. drivers traveled far fewer miles in 2020, pedestrian deaths jumped nearly 5% from 2019, in the largest annual increase of the pedestrian fatality rate since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started tabulating such crashes. Posts on social media featuring children standing next to the towering hood heights of GMC Sierras and Ram 2500s have drawn attention to one reason why: Such vehicles are more likely to run over pedestrians than thrust them over the hood. Tall trucks and SUVs can have significant front blind zones that obscure the road ahead, contributing to the risk of deadly “frontover” crashes. 

But apart from voluntary agreements with automakers to include technologies such as automatic pedestrian braking, which aren’t available on many vehicles, federal regulators have done little to respond to these issues. A 2020 Government Accountability Office report found the National Highway Safety Administration has dragged its feet on collecting detailed pedestrian injury data and has still not decided on whether to include pedestrian safety tests in its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). European countries and Japan require pedestrian safety testing as part of their five-star vehicle rating systems. 

President Joe Biden  — who experienced the loss of his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash — and transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg have touted traffic safety as a key transportation priority. A NHTSA spokesperson said that the agency plans to announce upgrades and improvements to NCAP later this year. 

How New York’s proposed pedestrian safety ratings would influence purchasing decisions is unclear. Would sticking warning labels on dangerous yet profitable models ward off some buyers? The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group, did not respond to a request for comment.

Offer Grembek, co-director of the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at the University of California, Berkeley, praised the idea for drawing attention to the risks that vehicles can pose to those not behind the wheel. “The responsibility that drivers or consumers have towards the safety of vulnerable road users can be overlooked,” he wrote via email. “Efforts to quantify the protective capability that cars provide to pedestrians is likely to have a positive impact on safety.”

Amy Cohen, a co-founder of the New York City advocacy group Families for Safe Streets, said she hopes it starts a national conversation about a growing public health issue. Her organization backs the bill, as well as seven others related to traffic safety currently in the New York legislature, known together as the Crash Victim Rights and Safety Act.

“This has an opportunity to inform the legislative process at the federal level,” she said. “The U.S. should be looking for models of what is possible, and we should be setting the way in New York City.”

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