Every year, more Canadians buy needlessly larger vehicles, while the pedestrian death toll grows in sync, too
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Mar 28, 2022
In this file photo, a woman wearing headphones crosses the street at a Toronto intersection. PHOTO BY CRAIG ROBERTSON /Toronto Sun
“SUVs, pickups, vans, and minivans are substantially more likely than cars to hit pedestrians when making turns, suggesting that these larger vehicles may not afford drivers as clear a view of people crossing the road, a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows.”
That’s it. That’s the opening shot, and also the summary, of a study from a highly reputable organization that devotes itself to traffic safety. And nobody will care. There is absolutely nothing in that opening quote that is a surprise. It is not news. When you can’t see what is happening outside of your vehicle, you are more likely to hit things.
We are selfish. We are spoiled. We are emotional when it comes to vehicles, something that recent high fuel costs are no doubt reminding people who bought too much vehicle last time. Manufacturers spend a fortune on ad campaigns to remind you that you need and deserve the biggest you can afford, other road users be damned.
Maybe you’ve bought into the promises that your vehicle will protect those on the inside. After all, you’ve never been more likely to walk away from what once would have been a fatal crash than you are now. Safety systems – whether passive ones like seatbelts, airbags, and crumple zones; or active ones like automated emergency braking and lane-keeping assist – are remarkable, and improving with every model year.
Your car has never been more able to protect you and your passengers, and that’s an outstanding achievement. Even more importantly, these systems are becoming standard on more and more vehicles, not just those nesting at the top of the food chain.
But drivers have a responsibility to all road users, not just the ones they’re transporting. Manufacturers have a responsibility, too, so pedestrian avoidance systems are coming into increased focus. They, too, are getting better, and becoming more widely available, and are now going to be factored into safety ratings.
What consumers have to remember, though, is that while you can pretty much assume your airbags will activate and save you because they’ve been doing that for decades, those pedestrian safety systems? Not quite so reliable. When there isn’t adequate lighting, the IIHS found they made no difference at all. In the very circumstances that you as a driver are least likely to see that pedestrian, your car is not so great at detecting them, either.
A Toyota SUV making a right turn past a pedestrian in an intersection PHOTO BY IIHS
It’s always been difficult to get statistics that break down what killed who, or rather, who killed who. Drivers cause crashes, and the possibility of an actual “accident” is statistically tiny, regardless of news accounts of cars “going out of control.” What I mean is, driver error is far and away the leading cause of crashes. You can complain about weather or road design or what manufacturers are allowed to get away with, but ultimately, if you choose to drive, you are in control of the outcome.
Crash data rarely drills down far enough, and yet, this most recent IIHS study reveals it is this very information that we desperately need. Over 80 per cent of vehicles sold in Canada last year were pickup trucks and SUVs. “Hood height of passenger trucks has increased by an average of at least 11 per cent since 2000 and new pickups grew 24 per cent heavier on average from 2000 to 2018,” says Consumer Reports.
They’re even higher now, with some of those massive pickup trucks having “front blind spots that were 3.3 metres (11 feet) longer than some sedans, and 2.1 metres (7 feet) longer than in some SUVs.” Imagine not being able to see over 3 metres beyond what you could see in a “normal” car; now start blindly moving around in pedestrian-heavy zones.
“At intersections, the odds that a crash that killed a crossing pedestrian involved a left turn by the vehicle versus no turn were about twice as high for SUVs, nearly three times as high for vans and minivans, and nearly four times as high for pickups as they were for cars. The odds that a crash that killed a crossing pedestrian involved a right turn by the vehicle were also 89 per cent higher for pickups and 63 per cent higher for SUVs than for cars,” from the IIHS study, with the emphasis mine. People piloting these increasingly larger vehicles in urban streets and parking lots are 89 per cent more likely to kill a pedestrian if they’re hanging a right than they would be making the same turn in a car.
Pedestrians wait for a pick-up truck that failed to stop to let them cross the street at the crosswalk on Peel St. south of St. Catherine St. in Montreal, Monday October 31, 2011. PHOTO BY JOHN MAHONEY /Montreal Gazette
We don’t need more and more studies. We need urban design that puts people ahead of vehicles. We need manufacturers to acknowledge the reason they need better pedestrian avoidance systems is because their bigger, heavier vehicles are going to mean drivers kill and injure more vulnerable road users — ones they can’t even see because the vehicles are so large.
How many times can we keep telling kids they have to ride their bikes in a way to make sure they make it easier for drivers to drive around them? Why should pedestrians have to make sure a driver sees them? When do we stop blaming people using urban roadways for getting in the way of those who are essentially wielding urban assault vehicles?
How can you call this a war on drivers when the ones paying the price are the ones who aren’t even driving?
The South Carolina Senate passed a bill Wednesday that aims to ban drivers across the state from holding their phone — whether it be to answer a text or put on a new playlist — while driving their car. By a 37-3 Senate vote, the legislation heads to the House, where similar efforts have failed in the past. The move comes after the state recorded one of the most dangerous years for drivers in the last 15 years. In 2021, 1,118 people died in auto accidents on South Carolina’s highways. The bill, S. 248, is a lighter version of Georgia’s hands-free driving law. Drivers, under the legislation, would be prohibited from writing, sending or reading any texts or emails, changing to the next podcast or song, watching videos or using more than one button to answer a call. Georgia’s law, passed in 2018, prohibits drivers from touching their phones with any part of their body. “If Georgia can do this, South Carolina can do it too,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said last week. The bill would make holding a phone or other mobile device while driving a distracted driving offense, punishable by a fine of $100. If a driver is caught again within three years, they could be fined $200 and two points would be recorded on their license. The driver’s license could be suspended for three or more months if 12 points are recorded against the license. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have passed some sort of restriction on using cellphones while driving. There are some exceptions to the Senate’s legislation. Drivers would be allowed to touch their phone to begin or end calls or to turn it on or off. They also could use a GPS app and voice-to-text functions, earpieces, smart watches and a car’s built-in hands-free media system. Pulling to the side of the road and parking to use a cellphone would be allowed if the legislation became law. Drivers who report traffic accidents, fires, medical emergencies or crimes would be allowed to use their phones while driving. Law enforcement, first responders and utility services providers who are using their phones for work are exceptions in the legislation. Several state agencies and groups, including the Department of Transportation, support the measure. “As Secretary (Christy) Hall said, distracted driving is an epidemic in South Carolina, and she said this bill is a tool that would be used in our toolbox to address the distracted driving problem,” Young said last week. During the debate, some senators questioned whether the bill was necessary. Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, for instance, asked whether the bill would do anything to curb distracted driving, the bill’s stated purpose. And Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, asked whether the guidelines set under the bill were clear enough for all South Carolina residents to understand, including whether drivers would know whether they could touch their phone while in the car’s cup holder. “Can we really tell our citizens what happens once it passes?” Malloy said.
This story was originally published February 23, 2022 4:08 PM.
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By David Leonhardt
The United States is enduring its most severe increase in traffic deaths since the 1940s.
It is a sharp change from the recent norm, too. Deaths from vehicle crashes have generally been falling since the late 1960s, thanks to vehicle improvements, lower speed limits and declines in drunken driving, among other factors. By 2019, the annual death rate from crashes was near its lowest level since cars became a mass item in the 1920s.
But then came the Covid-19 pandemic.
Crashes — and deaths — began surging in the summer of 2020, surprising traffic experts who had hoped that relatively empty roads would cause accidents to decline. Instead, an increase in aggressive driving more than made up for the decline in driving. And crashes continued to increase when people returned to the roads, later in the pandemic.
Per capita vehicle deaths rose 17.5 percent from the summer of 2019 to last summer, according to a Times analysis of federal data. It is the largest two-year increase since just after World War II.
Source: National Highway Safety Administration
This grim trend is another way that two years of isolation and disruption have damaged life, as this story — by my colleague Simon Romero, who’s a national correspondent — explains. People are frustrated and angry, and those feelings are fueling increases in violent crime, customer abuse of workers, student misbehavior in school and vehicle crashes.
In his story, Simon profiles one of the victims, a 7-year-old boy in Albuquerque named Pronoy Bhattacharya. Like Pronoy, many other victims of vehicles crashes are young and healthy and would have had decades of life ahead of them if only they had not been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pronoy was killed as he crossed the street with his family in December, after visiting a holiday lights display. The driver had run a red light.
“We’re seeing erratic behavior in the way people are acting and their patience levels,” Albuquerque’s police chief, Harold Medina, told Simon. “Everybody’s been pushed. This is one of the most stressful times in memory.”
Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, said that the emotions partly reflected “two years of having to stop ourselves from doing things that we’d like to do.” He added: “When you get angry in the car, it generates energy — and how do you dissipate that energy? Well, one way is to put your foot down a little bit more on the accelerator.”
Rising drug abuse during the pandemic seems to play an important role, as well. The U.S. Department of Transportation has reported that “the proportion of drivers testing positive for opioids nearly doubled after mid-March 2020, compared to the previous 6 months, while marijuana prevalence increased by about 50 percent.” (Mid-March 2020 is when major Covid mitigations began.)
Other factors besides the pandemic also affect traffic deaths, of course. But those other factors tend to change slowly — and often counteract each other. Improving technology and safety features reduce traffic deaths, while the growing size of vehicles and the rise of distracted driving lead to more deaths. The only plausible explanation for most of the recent surge is the pandemic.
Vehicle crashes might seem like an equal-opportunity public health problem, spanning racial and economic groups. Americans use the same highways, after all, and everybody is vulnerable to serious accidents. But they are not equally vulnerable.
Traffic fatalities are much more common in low-income neighborhoods and among Native and Black Americans, government data shows. Fatalities are less common among Asian Americans. (The evidence about Latinos is mixed.) There are multiple reasons, including socioeconomic differences in vehicle quality, road conditions, substance abuse and availability of crosswalks.
These patterns mean that the rise in vehicle crashes over the past two years has widened racial and class disparities in health. In 2020, overall U.S. traffic deaths rose 7.2 percent. Among Black Americans, the increase was 23 percent.
One factor: Essential workers, who could not stay home and work remotely, are disproportionately Black, Destiny Thomas, an urban planner, told ABC News.
Another factor: Pedestrians are disproportionately Black, Norman Garrick of the University of Connecticut noted. “This is not by choice,” Garrick told NBC News. “In many cases, Black folks cannot afford motor vehicles.” As Simon’s story notes, recent increases in pedestrian deaths have been especially sharp.
The increasing inequality of traffic deaths is also part of a larger Covid pattern in the U.S.: Much of the burden from the pandemic’s disruptions has fallen on historically disadvantaged groups. (Deaths from Covid itself have also been somewhat higher among people of color.)
Learning losses have been largest for Black and Latino children, as well as children who attend high-poverty schools. Drug overdoses have soared, and they are heavily concentrated among working-class and poor Americans.
As I’ve written before, there are few easy answers on Covid. Continuing the behavior restrictions and disruptions of the past two years does have potential benefits: It can reduce the spread of the virus. But those same restrictions and disruptions have large downsides.
Many workplaces remain closed. Schools aren’t operating close to normally (as my colleague Erica Green has described). Millions of adults and children must wear masks all day long. These changes have created widespread frustration and anxiety — and the burdens of them do not fall equally across society.
Dr. David Spiegel, who runs Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, has a clarifying way of describing the problem. People are coping with what he calls “social disengagement.” — a lack of contact with other people that in normal times provides pleasure, support and comfort. Instead, Spiegel said, “There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.”
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