Congress sat back and let trucks become heavier, taller, and deadlier. Now pedestrian fatalities are at a 40-year high.
American trucks are becoming taller, heavier, and more dangerous to pedestrians.
As trucks get bigger and bigger, so do the blind zones in the front and to the side of the cars.
Experts and one member of Congress have suggested requiring vehicles to possess pedestrian-detecting technology.
Canadian civil engineering technologist Myles Russell put his pen to paper and spent over 100 hours calculating the sightlines of various vehicles.
He didn't expect to find that an M1 Abrams battle tank had better a sightline than some everyday trucks.
And while vehicles are increasingly becoming equipped with sensors and cameras to limit the damage they cause, Russell said that mistakes and errors can happen. And when they do, lives will be on the line.
"Physics doesn't care about cameras, sensors, ABS, and other tech. Tech fails, and when it does it'll be pedestrians, children, cyclists, and those in smaller, more sensible cars that will pay," said Russell.
The modern American truck has become heavier, taller, and more dangerous for the rest of us. And at the same time, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, pedestrians are getting killed by vehicles at the highest rate in 40 years, growing from 4,109 deaths in 2009 to 7,485 in 2021.
In an M1 Abrams tank, Russell calculated, the top of a child's head wouldn't be visible until they were just over 4 feet in front of the vehicle. In multiple trucks, however, that distance rose to more than 7 feet.
In a statement from Ford, a leading truck manufacturer, a representative from the company said "safety is a top priority" and that each of its F-150 trucks contains automatic emergency braking, detection devices, and a myriad of other safety features.
You can change lots of laws, but Newton's Second Law of Motion isn't one of them
As pedestrian deaths have risen, so has the average curb weight of the American truck. In 1991, the average curb weight of an American truck was 3,417 pounds, according to data from Edmunds. Thirty years later, in 2021, the average has risen to a staggering 5,124 pounds.
There's still room to grow — manufacturers can build passenger vehicles that weigh up to 10,000 pounds until they face a slew of additional regulations by the Department of Transportation.
Some manufacturers are already testing the limit. One of the heaviest passenger trucks on the market, the 2022 GMC Hummer EV Pickup, has a curb weight of just over 9,000 pounds.
Isaac Newton's Second Law of Motion holds that force is equal to mass times acceleration, meaning that the more massive an object is, the greater the amount of force it takes to accelerate and decelerate the object.
Michael Brooks, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, alluded to that simple law of physics in a conversation with Insider when he noted "there's a kind of an inextricable link between the weight of vehicles and the forces in a crash."
He further pointed to a study by University of California, Berkeley researchers Michael Anderson and Maximilian Auffhammer that found, when it comes to multi-vehicle collisions, a "1,000-pound increase in striking vehicle weight raises the probability of a fatality in the struck vehicle by 47%."
As trucks have gotten taller and taller, Brooks noted, so has the point of impact when they collide with pedestrians, with much of the force going to the person's torso or head.
"So the injuries are much more traumatic in the case of larger, heavier vehicles," Brooks said.
Heavier trucks also make for bigger blind zones
A 2022 study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that trucks and SUVs "were more likely to be involved in crashes where vehicles were turning at or near intersections, and in crashes where pedestrians were standing, walking, or running on or near the edge of a travel lane at nonintersection locations."
Jessica B. Cicchino, one of the study's authors and the vice president for research at the IIHS, told Insider that there are multiple elements that could be affecting this, including the size of a vehicle's A-pillar, which she said could also obstruct drivers' view.
The A, B, and C-pillars in vehicles must be strong enough to hold up the roof of the car without collapsing in the event of a rollover, meaning the pillars have had to become stronger as trucks have gotten increasingly heavier.
To make the pillars stronger, manufacturers have made them increasingly wider and larger, which in turn has created additional blind spots for drivers.
Modern trucks have also proven to be dangerous even when moving at slow speeds due to their large blind zones. Due to the shape of the hood, a modern truck's blind zone can extend to more than a dozen feet out in front of the vehicle.
The spacious blind zones have led to an increase in "frontovers," according to Amber Rollins, the director of Kids and Car Safety. A frontover is a traffic collision where a driver slowly runs over a victim in their front blind spot.
Tracking frontovers has proven to be a difficult task for government agencies.
Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Steven S. Cliff wrote in a 2022 letter to Sen. Richard Blumenthal that there's tremendous difficulty in accurately collecting data on frontover collisions. "Among the State crash reports NHTSA receives, there are no data fields dedicated to identifying frontovers," he wrote.
According to NHTSA data, there were 240 estimated nonoccupant deaths by forward-moving vehicles in the United States in 2016. In 2020, that had more than doubled to 526 deaths.
Frontover deaths, according to NHTSA, make up a subset of these nonoccupant deaths.
More precise data regarding frontover collisions appear to be on the horizon.
A spokesperson for NHTSA told Insider the agency "is exploring the addition of two new non-traffic crash data elements related to backovers and frontovers for every non-traffic crash in the upcoming data collection year."
Proposed solutions have failed to garner support on Capitol Hill
In late 2022, following investigative reports from NBC4 Washington, Sen. Richard Blumenthal introduced the STOP Frontovers Act which would require new vehicles to possess technology that could detect pedestrians directly in front of the vehicle as well as requiring NHTSA to officially develop a definition for a frontover.
The legislation was never brought to a vote, but Blumenthal told Insider he had plans to reintroduce the act this session of Congress.
"Frontovers are tragically killing and injuring children, demanding Congressional action," Blumenthal told Insider in a statement. "My STOP Frontovers Act requires all car manufacturers to install technology like cameras or sensors to help detect small kids or pets in front of the car and calls on NHTSA to improve data collection and reporting of these incidents. I will be reintroducing this measure and pushing for its swift passage to put an end to frontovers — preventing more families from suffering this horrific heartbreak."
Blumenthal's office didn't introduce the original bill until November 2022, just before the midterm elections, when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. It will be much more difficult for Blumenthal to pass the legislation this congressional session, where control of Congress is split.
One other possible solution to prevent pedestrian deaths, suggested by Brooks, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, would be to regulate and require new vehicles to include pedestrian automatic emergency braking systems.
NHTSA is currently developing safety standards for the technology, and results from tests involving automatic emergency braking systems in vehicles have been promising.
Cicchino, the vice president for research at the IIHS, told Insider that vehicles equipped with automatic emergency braking systems saw a 27% reduction in pedestrian crashes compared with vehicles of the same model that didn't have the technology.
Automatic emergency braking systems, however, do come with some flaws. Cicchino noted the technology doesn't work as well in the dark or when vehicles are turning.
Russell, the civil engineering technologist, said that even with these safety features added, trucks are still inherently dangerous due to their size, shape, and weight.
"We know 'light trucks' and SUVs are dangerous," Russell said. "It's irrefutable evidence based on loads of evidence. We know EVs are heavier. We know these machines are rarely used for their intended purposes, but we continue to let vehicle companies put profit over human health. It's a race to the biggest machine driven by the biggest assholes, and it's society that will pay for that arrogance."
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