SUVs and trucks cause more deaths

The vast majority think of themselves as better than average drivers. We judge ourselves by our intent and not the outcome. Others judge us by the outcome but rarely by our intent. We are very good at rationalising our irrational behaviour, particularly to protect our ego. The sales boom of SUVs and trucks (utes) is ongoing – even during a climate change emergency. SUVs and trucks are more likely to cause the deaths of pedestrians and cyclists – an inconvenient truth that many refuse to accept.


  1. We are still cowboys are heart
  2. Transport safety includes more than car occupants
  3. Pedestrians as road kill
  4. Bigger is not better
  5. Large vehicles are more likely to cause pedestrian fatalities
  6. NCAP will not be enough
  7. Psychology of Risk

We are still cowboys are heart

Our horse was motorised with the invention of the private motor vehicle, but otherwise little has changed. The motor vehicle became our pride, status symbol and a demonstration of personal liberty. The westerns in the postwar period romanticised freedom, nature, masculinity and personal liberty. Today’s marketing of cars, and particularly trucks, appeals to these ideals. Even though we predominately live in cities and rarely venture out of their confines, the ownership of a truck or 4WD gives us the feeling of connecting to our rural traditions. The irony of venerating our natural environment with bush bashing, 3 tonne, 6 m long, noisy, polluting diesel trucks is yet another demonstration of the contradictions of human nature.

Transport safety includes more than car occupants

Pedestrian advocacy and transport safety research has critiqued road safety policy (worldwide) for its preoccupation with the occupants of motor vehicles, while pretty much ignoring the safety of pedestrians and cyclists who are the most likely to be harmed through motor vehicle collisions. The last Commonwealth strategy for road safety (2021) is more of the same, cheering the benefits of car design and technical innovation to protect motor vehicle occupants from harm, but hardly mentions vulnerable road users. How can we turn this around?

Pedestrians as road kill

The collision of a three tonne mass of metal at speed with a pedestrian or cyclist is likely to result in the death of the vulnerable road user. The death is caused by simple physics but no less tragic.

Cars are very fast, very heavy and very hard. When a car collides with another car, the cars can be so damaged that they must be towed away. When a car collides with a pedestrian or cyclist, the damage to the car is often superficial. Hit and runs are not that uncommon, and the ACT Police are always requesting information on such incidents from the public. The drivers involved often claim they were unaware that they collided with a person – hard to believe.

Our bodies are very soft and we have very limited capacity to absorb the energy of the collision without fatal outcomes. Falling from a roof just a few metres can result is death, which is why building sites in the ACT have strict Workplace, Health and Safety (WHS) rules. Our hospitals are full of people who have fallen off scooters. These collisions are at low speed and may not even involve a collision with a stationary object. It should not be too difficult to imagine the damage a person’s body sustains when run down by a motor vehicle.

Our reactions times are too slow. As amazing as our cognitive abilities are, our brain developed for speeds we walk or run, and is ill-suited to high speed motoring. Primary school children do not possess the cognitive ability to judge vehicle speed and distance. Even under the best circumstances, without us being affected by alcohol, drugs, fatigue or distracted by the smartphone, our reactions times are too slow to prevent traffic accidents. In half of all collisions with pedestrians and cyclists, the driver never brakes and collides with the person at road speed – typically the road speed limit or higher.

The energy of a motor vehicle and braking distance increases with the square of speed. Double the speed and a motor vehicle has four times the energy. This means that higher travel speeds have a unfortunate, disproportionate relation to small speed increases that greatly increase the chance of death of the pedestrian or cyclist.

Austroads is very much aware of this and promotes a Safe System thinking for road safety. The essence of this rather abstract model is the assumption is that we do not intentional harm our fellow human beings. Rather, we are human – we will make mistakes and those mistakes can have fatal outcomes. Making our cities safe for pedestrians and cyclists means that penalties and education for drivers can achieve only so much. Instead, me must assume drivers will continue to make the same mistakes. We have to take policy measures to ensure that when collisions occur the outcomes for pedestrians or cyclists are not fatal and injuries are minimised. This is particularly true for children and places where they are found such, as around schools or in suburban neighbourhoods.

The single most effective measure to improve road safety for pedestrians and cyclists is the reduction of speed limits on local streets to 30 km/h and on major and minor collectors to 50 km/h. Roads the speed limits about 50 km/h must have physical, grade separation between pedestrians/cyclists and motor vehicles. Most Canberra roads are not compliant with these Austroad recommendations.

Bigger is not better

The most worrying trend in motoring is that people are choosing to buy bigger and heavier motor vehicles. This trend is worldwide. Recent sales data in Australia confirms the trend. Bigger cars take up more space on our roads, burn more fuel, and are commonly fitted with diesel internal combustion engines (ICE). A decade ago, we learnt that fuel emission on new vehicles in Australia had increased in since the 1970s. We doubt this has changed in Australia since.

Diesel motors emit particulates. Particulates are small particles (less than 2.5 micrometres) of soot that have adverse impacts on our health. In high concentrations we will may experience breathing difficulty (asthma) and eye irritations – as experienced during the bush fires recently.

The trend to make bigger SUVs is not new but typical for the new car market. SUVs are getting bigger and heavier. Initially, here in Australia, all wheel vehicles (AWD) were popular. Such vehicles are very expensive, very heavy and generally the interior comfort was less than what many owners would have liked. Toyota noticed that their popular AWD vehicle were often purchased by city dwellers with little or no intention to drive them on dirt. The Toyota Land Cruiser did not offer the luxury that these drivers wanted. Toyota’s response was to develop another car that looked like an AWD, just bigger and more luxurious. The car is mocked by off-roaders as nothing but a facade. Toyota’s insight was rewarded with increased sales.

The same trend can be seen in the “ute” market. When Holden was the Australian ute manufacture, the ute was about the size of a Commodore. That has changed with Nissan, Ford, VW and Toyota out doing each other with the introduction of bigger and bigger trucks. On of the biggest seen on Australian roads is still the Dodge RAM. The RAM is not small: 5.8 m long, 2.5 m wide, 1.9 m high, has a Gross Vehicle Mass of 3450 kg (but with trailer may way as much as 7237 kg) and a fuel consumption of 12.2 L/100 km (minimum).

Large vehicles are more likely to cause pedestrian fatalities

The US is leading in the “light truck” market. Manufacturers like trucks are more profitable than smaller motor vehicles. In surveys, owners respond that they believe others would like to own a car like theirs – which is the psychologists’ way of asking whether you value status symbols.

A recent article from The Verge (The US government finally realizes that cars kill people outside the vehicle, too, Andrew J. Hawkins, The Verge, 3 March 2022) welcomes the US government’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) major update of its standards to better reflect the harm that motor vehicles cause to pedestrians and cyclists. As many people die on the roads in the US every month as those that died in the 9/11 Twin Tower tragedy. Worst of all, pedestrian deaths are skyrocketing, not least due to the greater proportion of large SUVs and trucks now found on the roads. The blunt and tall front ends of SUVs and trucks make head and torso injuries more likely and pedestrians can be dragged underneath the vehicle and crushed.

It’s been a particularly bloody couple of years for pedestrians and cyclists. In 2020, bicyclist deaths increased more than 9 percent, hitting the highest number since 1987. Fatalities in cities rose almost 9 percent, and pedestrian deaths approached 4 percent, the highest number since 1989.

“There’s a crisis on America’s roadways: 3,000 people die every month, and the numbers have only gotten worse in recent years,” said US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement. “These important changes will help save lives on our roadways by ensuring that consumers have the information they need about the latest safety technologies when they buy a new vehicle.”

The correlation between vehicle design and pedestrian deaths is pretty clear. The most popular types of vehicles, SUVs and pickup trucks, are typically the most dangerous. While people driving SUVs are slightly safer, the number of pedestrians killed by those drivers has skyrocketed by 81 percent in the last decade, according to a report released a few years ago by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

This is mostly because of the way SUVs are designed: larger bodies and higher carriages mean pedestrians are more likely to suffer deadly blows to the head and torso. Higher clearances mean victims are more likely to get trapped underneath a speeding SUV instead of pushed onto the hood or off to the side.

An overhauled NCAP could penalize vehicles that are designed in this deadly manner. That could have a huge impact on current SUV and truck design — but only if NHTSA sticks to its guns and adopts these proposals.

The US government finally realizes that cars kill people outside the vehicle, too, Andrew J. Hawkins, The Verge, 3 March 2022

NCAP will not be enough

The standards in the US weigh heavily on the thinking of policymakers in Australia. Even though we would like to think the policies in Australia are better, they can often be worse, such as with the lack of Australian fuel standards. One would hope that better NCAP standards in the US will make the trucks we are importing from the USA safer.

To be sure, NCAP will not be enough. Vehicles are responsible for 60% of the emissions in the ACT. Substituting electric vehicles for ICE cars would improve the situation. You would hope for car manufactures to send the newest and cleanest motor vehicles to Australia but we tend to get the old and dirty ones instead. The European Union has been lobbying the Australian Commonwealth Government for better fuel standards. The current Government has little interest in a framework to attract imports of electric cars. VW stated openly that they intended to ignore the Australian market as they are struggling to meet worldwide demand for electric cars. They will send the surplus to the USA instead – where they are more welcome.

As good as they are, though, electric vehicles are not the answer to many of the challenges we are facing in the coming decades. Electric vehicles do not solve the problems with parking, congestion or sprawl – all of which are closely entwined with the tradition of private motor vehicle ownership. All round, we would be better off if we left the car at home, or did not buy one in the first place, and instead lived closer to the city and workplaces and took public transport, walked or rode bikes. Without better infrastructure for the alternate modes of transport, however, this is unlikely to happen.

The best way to protect pedestrians and cyclist is to keep cars separated from them. Where that is not possible, we need to slow cars down to 30 km/h. Even at 30 km/h, a pedestrian or cyclist will not survive being run over (crushed) by a truck, SUV or 4WD (AWD). There is a place for trucks, SUVs or 4WDs but their popularity far outweighs the applications where they are actually necessary. What we see instead is a nasty trend driven forward by badvertsing and status. The cure for badvertsing is regulation – as we did with smoking. For the latter, we must except that some will wish to buy a truck, SUV or 4WD anyway.

We can, however, design our city and public spaces in favour of pedestrians and stop the bigger polluting motor vehicles on the edges of civic and town centres, well away from pedestrians. Large vehicles can be discouraged through narrow roads, low height clearances, small turning circles, smaller and less parking spaces, and prohibition of cars in some places (car free areas). Price mechanisms are effective, including higher fuel prices and more expensive registrations. Recently, changes to the building code were proposed to keep vehicle parking separate from apartments, so that they can be sublease, financially rewarding those who practice a more sustainable lifestyle. A long-standing proposal has been for parking to be reduced and substituted with a payment to the ACT Government with the provision of alternate arrangements – which may be public transport.

Psychology of Risk

In the book Thinking Fast and Slow, chapter 13 Availability and Affect, Daniel Kahneman cites the work of Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, and Baruch Fischhoff.

When people were favourably disposed toward a technology, they rated it as offering large benefits and imposing little risk: when they disliked a technology, they could think only of its disadvantages, and few advantages come to mind.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, pos. 2361, chapter 13 Availability and Affect

The best part of the experiment came next. After completing the initial survey, the respondents read brief passages with arguments in favour of various technologies. Some were given arguments that focused on the numerous benefits of a technology; others, arguments that stressed the low risks. These messages were effective in changing the emotional appeal of the technologies. The striking finding was that people who had received a message extolling the benefits of a technology also changed their beliefs about its risks.. Although they had received no relevant evidence, the technology they now liked more than before was also perceived as less risky. Similarly, respondents who were told only that the risks of a technology were mild developed a more favourable view of its benefits. The implication is clear: as the psychologist Jonathan Haidt said in another context, “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” The affect heuristic simplifies our lives by creating a world that is much tidier than reality. Good technologies have few cost in the imaginary world we inhabit, bad technologies have not benefits, and decision are easy. In the real world, of course, we often face painful tradeoffs between benefits and costs.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, pos. 2368, chapter 13 Availability and Affect

The conclusion regarding SUVs and trucks is that owners who see the benefits are unlikely to perceive the risks.

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