The SUVs and Trucks We Love Are Killing People
Rugged, high-clearance, all-wheel-drive vehicles are great for getting out there—but at what cost to cyclists and pedestrians?
Not long ago, I almost died on a bike ride.
Headed south on a bike path in Boulder, Colorado, I pulled up to a stoplight and waited for the signal. When it turned green, I pushed off and began to pedal. Suddenly, a dark blur burst into the left side of my peripheral vision. “Shit!” I exclaimed, braking hard. A black Jeep Grand Cherokee shooting through the red light passed perhaps a foot or two in front of my wheel.
Had the timing been even slightly different, I would have become one of nearly 47,000 cyclists hit by a car annually in the U.S., or worse, one of more than 850 riders who die in those collisions each year, according to 2018 figures.
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After declining for most of the 1990s and 2000s, cyclist fatalities have been on the rise since 2010 and are now at 30-year highs. Pedestrian crash rates show an almost identical pattern. (Vehicle-occupant deaths, meanwhile, have dropped around 25 percent since peaking in the early 2000s.) According to a 2018 report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the rate of pedestrian involvement in crashes rose 13 percent from 2009 to 2016, accounting for population change. But the percentage of pedestrians killed rose at more than twice that rate.
There are myriad reasons why more cyclists and pedestrians are dying on American roads, including population growth, a steady rise in miles driven, and distracted driving. But part of the answer was staring me in the face that day at that Boulder intersection.
SUVs and pickup trucks are popular vehicles for many Outside readers (I’m no exception—I drive a Subaru Forester), because they’re capable, sporty, and fun. They handle dirt and snowy roads with ease and are perfect for loading up bikes, skis, or a weekend’s worth of camping gear. But they’re also significantly more dangerous to those of us out on the road for a ride or a run.
Numerous studies have found that SUVs and trucks are more deadly to vulnerable road users (VRUs) in almost any crash: they are at least 50 percent more likely to kill, according to a comprehensive review of studies from 2010 published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention. Buses and vans are also particularly deadly, but their numbers are comparatively small, so they don’t move the needle like light trucks, a category that includes SUVs and pickups with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR, or the weight of a vehicle plus people and cargo) of up to 8,500 pounds. According to the 2018 IIHS report, pedestrian fatalities in crashes with SUVs rose more than 80 percent from 2009 to 2016, while fatalities caused by cars and other types of vehicles rose by half that or less.
Light trucks make up an ever larger share of vehicles on our roads. But their deadliness is attributable to more than their increasing numbers. The problem, researchers say, is also rooted in their size and shape, and how that changes the dynamics of crashes in vital ways.
The Inconvenient Truth About Your Adventuremobile
“Cyclist or pedestrian hit by car” is one of the worst calls that Dr. Nicholas Namias gets on his pager, says the surgeon and longtime director of Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, one of the busiest level 1 trauma centers in Miami. Ryder sees only the most severe cases in the metro area. Last year, that included 456 VRU crash victims (139 of whom were cyclists). To Namias, these cases are worse than gunshot wounds. “A gunshot wound is usually a little more straightforward,” he says. “When you get hit by a car, it’s like multiple gunshot wounds—in the leg, in the pelvis, in the chest and abdomen, in the head.”
When a car or SUV hits a person, the first impact is usually the bumper or grille against some part of the leg. At 40 milliseconds after contact, peak forces on the leg and knee either strain and tear ligaments (at speeds below 20 miles per hour) or break bones (above 30 mph). At the 70-to-80-millisecond mark, the victim wraps around the hood’s leading edge—the point where the grille and the hood meet and start to curve back over the engine compartment—and begins to slide up the front of the vehicle. Depending on the speed and make of the vehicle, the chest and head hit somewhere on the hood, windshield, or A-pillar (one of two pillars that frame the windshield) at around 100 to 160 milliseconds. The initial collision is over in barely more time than it takes to blink.
Crashes with SUVs do more damage. A 2005 study from the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine’s annual journal found that severe torso injuries are 98 percent more likely to occur in a crash with a vehicle in the light-truck category. After head trauma, injuries to the torso are the second-leading cause of death in VRU collisions.
Had the timing been even slightly different, I would have become one of nearly 47,000 cyclists hit by a car annually in the U.S., or worse, one of more than 850 riders who die in those collisions each year.
It would be easy to blame the sheer mass of these vehicles for the violent nature of these crashes, but surprisingly, that’s generally not a factor. The forces required to break human bones vary, but the skull can’t withstand more than about 2,300 pounds of pressure. That’s easily exceeded in a crash, whether it’s with a Toyota Corolla or a 4Runner.
The main problems with light trucks are their height and shape, says Jingwen Hu, an associate research professor in the biosciences group of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute and a specialist in crash-injury biomechanics.
When a car strikes a cyclist, the initial impact causes severe lower-body trauma, but it’s also likely to sweep that person’s legs out from underneath them. This is significant, because as the rider slides up the hood, they’re scrubbing speed and, with it, some impact force. An SUV or truck, by contrast, is taller, so the initial impact is likely to target the pelvis or even the chest. “That momentum is carried through your body,” says Hu. In addition, the front-end shape of a vehicle is vital. More than 85 percent of fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists hit by cars and light trucks involve impacts from the front of the vehicle, according to 2017 data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Modern truck and full-size SUVs favor blocky, muscular styling at the front end, rather than the more gently sloping transition from grille to hood that cars and some compact SUVs have. Instead of sliding onto the hood when hit by a truck, the rider’s pelvis and torso rotate with a twisting, tearing motion. With a squared-off front end, Hu says, “it’s basically the person wrapping around the vehicle.”
Injury severity also relies greatly on what part of the vehicle the rider hits next: the center of the hood or windshield absorb far more force than a reinforced part like an A-pillar. But in part because of their size, trucks and SUVs tend to feature stiffer hood assemblies than cars, so even landing on the hood may cause more damage than an identical impact against a car.
Finally, in nearly all crashes with cars or light trucks, there’s a secondary impact as the victim is thrown to the ground, usually after sliding onto the hood or windshield. But because of the tall, square front ends on SUVs and trucks, a rider is more likely to be thrown forward onto the ground, where they could be run over.
Supersized, and Only Getting More Super
Like many of its SUV peers, the Jeep that almost hit me was designed with ample clearance for driving off-road and through variable conditions. Carmakers publish all manner of dimensional specs but almost never list how tall vehicle front ends are, and I couldn’t find any research that tracked vehicle front-end height over time.
So on two recent Sundays, I visited a few car dealerships to measure for myself. What I found, after measuring more than 120 vehicles across 20 different makes, won’t surprise you: pickup and SUV hoods are universally taller than car hoods. Even most compact SUVs have leading edges on the hood that are three feet tall. Midsize SUVs are a bit taller; the current Jeep Grand Cherokee, for example, measures three feet six inches at the hood’s leading edge. Full-size pickups have hoods that are taller still: around four feet. And many of the three-passenger-row SUVs that Americans love, like the Ford Expedition and the Chevy Tahoe, are based on the same frame platforms as full-size pickups and have similar hood heights. By contrast, I didn’t find a single passenger car—sedan, coupe, or wagon—over two-and-a-half-feet tall at the leading edge of the hood.
SUVs and trucks have also grown considerably in the past two decades, with trucks being the worst offenders. Take the Ford F-150, America’s best-selling vehicle of all time: when I measured models from the 1980s and 1990s, most trim lines were about three feet four inches at the hood’s leading edge. Modern versions came in at around three feet ten inches. Then there’s the midsize Toyota Tacoma, a durably popular favorite for its combination of just-right size and off-road capability: its second-generation version, made from 2004 to 2015, featured a front end that’s around three feet five inches tall. The current generation’s hood is a whopping four feet one inch from the ground—a full eight inches higher than the version it replaced.
That’s before the aftermarket treatment that’s so common on today’s bro dozers: body or suspension lift kits that jack them up even higher and menacing bull bars—burly grille guards—designed to transfer crash forces to whatever the vehicle hits rather than absorb it via its crumple zones. The tallest vehicle I measured was a third-generation Dodge Ram 3500, made around 2005 and equipped with a lift kit and oversize wheels and tires. The hood’s leading edge stood at a full five feet three inches. The full-size Chevy Tahoe parked next to it looked positively Lilliputian in comparison.
Today’s taller leading edges cause two problems. First, sight lines are worse. Testing by Consumer Reports from 2014 found that rear blind spots on full-size trucks and SUVs were twice as large as on cars. And last year, a local news station in Indianapolis showed that trucks and large SUVs have a forward blind spot—yes, in front of the hood—that’s twice as long as the blind spot on compact SUVs. Both of these make collisions more likely.
The bigger SUVs and trucks get, the more menacing they are to people on foot or on bikes. I’m five feet nine, the height of the average American male. That means that while a car would strike me in the knee and femur, even a modern midsize SUV would hit me in the middle of my pelvis, the location of the iliac arteries, which supply blood flow to the lower body and the kidneys. The Grand Cherokee would have hit me just above the hip, below my rib cage. A pickup like the 2020 Ford or 2020 Toyota? I’d take the initial crash impact directly to my mid-torso and vital organs. The average American woman, at five feet four inches, would take the hit to her chest and neck.
Good God, They’re Everywhere
The Grand Cherokee that nearly made me a hood ornament doesn’t stand out for its size or height and, increasingly, it doesn’t stand out at all. SUVs made up less than 2 percent of vehicle sales in 1982, according to Keith Bradsher’s widely read book about their rise, High and Mighty. Today light trucks comprise almost 70 percent of U.S. new-car sales (note that Bradsher’s 2 percent statistic only encompassed SUVs). The top six best-selling vehicles in America in 2019 were trucks and SUVs; full-size pickups swept the top three spots.
These sales trends will likely continue. According to market forecaster LMC Automotive, by 2022, as much as 90 percent of GM and Ford sales may be light trucks, and Ford has discontinued sedans entirely in the U.S. except for the Mustang. Replacing these models are SUVs and trucks.
Americans love light trucks because they want the most vehicle for the dollar, says Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, an advisory service and research company that counts most automakers as clients. Every year, Strategic Vision surveys a quarter-million vehicle buyers for its New Vehicle Experience Survey, which car brands use to decide what to make in the future. “When people look at a truck, they see that they don’t have to compromise on capability,” Edwards says. “They get what they want, even if they only use it as intended once a year.” According to the survey’s data, some 75 percent of pickup owners tow something behind their truck once a year or less, while 35 percent carry something in the truck bed—which is the whole damn point of owning a pickup—once a year or less. According to Edwards’s data, 80 percent of the Ford F-150’s sold last year featured so-called SuperCrew cabs, a two-row, six-passenger configuration that appeals to more buyers, he says. Although pickups were originally intended as work vehicles, “people are using them more as a family vehicle.”
Trucks and SUVs dominate the $15 billion to $18 billion spent on auto advertising each year in the U.S. Truck ads feature rugged, work-site imagery, despite the fact that just 6 percent of Americans have jobs in fields like construction and natural resources, while SUV ads market the sporty and outdoorsy lifestyle. But there are hints of darker buyer motivation in the marketing, too, like the way SUVs and trucks are depicted as towering over their surroundings.
In our society, accountants drive lifted Ram 2500’s to the office, and parents pilot empty Suburbans to pick up a sack or two of groceries. The arms race pushes anyone who wants reasonable sight lines in traffic and the perceived sense of safety conferred by a larger vehicle to buy an SUV, whether they need it or not.
SUVs and trucks are so deeply embedded in our culture that they’re protected by the law. One reason full-size pickups from American brands dominate the market is the chicken tax, a 25 percent tariff on imported trucks that dates back to the 1960s, which was levied in retaliation to European taxes on U.S. chicken products. (It’s still on the books, even though foreign brands like Nissan and Toyota now build pickups in the U.S.).
In the 2017 tax overhaul that eliminated many deductions, Republican rule writers made sure to preserve, and even temporarily expand, two longtime tax breaks for vehicles with a GVWR of more than 6,000 pounds. These allowances let qualified buyers claim massive deductions for business use—up to 100 percent in the first year.
The law is intended for commercial truck fleets, but as SUVs have gotten bigger, even vehicles like the Toyota 4Runner and Porsche Cayenne qualify, as long as a small business owner or self-employed person can claim they meet the standards. These tax breaks, calculated via arcane methods with names like Section 168, Section 179, and bonus depreciation, are so ingrained that websites for vehicle makers include pages to help potential buyers calculate savings. And when the EPA raised fuel-economy standards during the Obama administration, it perversely created an incentive for automakers to make more large vehicles by requiring only a minimal increase in miles-per-gallon ratings for light trucks with GVWRs of up to 8,500 pounds.
The result of all this is a vehicle fleet that doesn’t even remotely match our uses. In our society, accountants drive lifted Ram 2500’s to the office, and parents pilot empty Suburbans to pick up a sack or two of groceries. The arms race pushes anyone who wants reasonable sight lines in traffic and the perceived sense of safety conferred by a larger vehicle to buy an SUV, whether they need it or not.
At Least the Drivers Are Paying Attention, Right?
The driver of that Grand Cherokee may have run the red light for any number of reasons: he was late, reckless, or maybe even malicious. But more likely, he simply didn’t notice.
“We are less situationally aware as a society than perhaps we’ve ever been,” says Bryan Reimer, associate director of MIT’s New England University Transportation Center, where he studies driver safety, among other topics. Distracted driving is nothing new, of course. But distraction today is different from the absentminded daydreaming of the pre-smartphone era.
From 2009 to 2018, the number of smartphones in the U.S. shot up from 50 million to 285 million, according to a 2019 report on pedestrian deaths from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Because of touchscreens, we’re increasingly engaged in what are called combination distractions. In addition to being cognitively focused on something other than driving, people are manually and/or visually distracted as well.
Multitasking is a myth; what we actually do is something called task switching, which is exactly what it sounds like: we rapidly shift our attention from task to task. Research, including Reimer’s, suggests that combination distractions like screen-based tasks take longer to switch back from. According to a paper written by Reimer and his colleagues at MIT for the 2018 Driver Distraction and Inattention Conference, drivers who are distracted “fail to protect their ability to anticipate hazards … they suffer a loss of awareness of the environment that disrupts how attention is managed in subsequent moments.”
That’s a clinical way of saying that, lulled by a hundred uneventful glances at a phone, we look at it more often. This leads to less situational awareness, until the moments when we’re paying attention to the road become so fleeting that we completely miss things we don’t expect to be there, like cyclists. This behavior isn’t limited to driving, says Reimer, pointing to the example of people walking down the street with their face buried in their device. Collectively, all that screen time is corrosive to our awareness. “You’re not developing the skill set required to monitor your surroundings,” he says. But distraction plus driving is an especially explosive combination.
How distracted are we? Estimates vary widely, and Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says it’s tough to get reliable data, partly because drivers don’t tell the truth. Data from TrueMotion, a mobile telematics company that provides safe-driving apps to car-insurance companies, suggests that 92 percent of us engage in some kind of tech-based distraction while driving, and the worst offenders (23 percent of drivers) spend, on average, at least a fifth of their time behind the wheel fiddling with their phones.
Cars today increasingly come with driver-assist tools, such as lane keeping and adaptive cruise control. But Cicchino says that overly relying on technology can lead drivers to pay even less attention to the road than they do now.
In a guest article he coauthored for The Daily Beast last year, Reimer noted that assistive tech has led to a shift in acceptable non-driving behavior behind the wheel. “Driving has become the distraction,” he wrote.
What Do We Do About This?
Americans love big vehicles. While that ardor may subside as the U.S. likely enters a recession—the purchase of bigger cars, trucks, and SUVs correlates with rosier financial and economic expectations, says Strategic Vision’s Edwards—light trucks still represent a major share of the vehicles on the road. Critics have been sounding the alarm on the dangers of SUVs and trucks for almost 20 years; High and Mighty was published in 2002, and studies linking SUVs to higher fatality rates date back at least to 2001. But there are changes we can make now that should have meaningful effects.
While trucks are here to stay, their styling can and should change. “Replacement of the blunt front ends of light trucks with sloping, more aerodynamic [car-like] designs can reduce the risk of pedestrian deaths in the event of a crash,” the 2019 GHSA report says. Such adjustments could reduce injuries, too. Design changes like lower hood heights and rounder transitions from grille to hood could help reduce femur and pelvic fractures in collision cases where a vehicle is traveling below 25 miles per hour, according to the University of Michigan’s Hu. Upgrades like bull bars, which can make crashes three times as violent, should be banned on street-legal vehicles. (This wouldn’t preclude their use on off-road vehicles.)
Like Europe, Australia, and Japan, the U.S. could require pedestrian-safety testing for passenger vehicles. If it did, carmakers would be pushed harder to incorporate what are called passive protection features, like energy-absorbing windshields and hoods that, on impact, instantly pop up to raise the hood angle and reduce crash forces. In Europe, vehicles have to undergo cyclist and pedestrian crash testing under rigorous protection standards and are rated accordingly. Vulnerable-road-user testing was introduced in Europe in 1997. Just a decade later, the number of vehicles with the lowest pedestrian-safety ratings had dropped by almost two-thirds. Our National Highway Transportation Administration explored introducing a similar policy in 2015, but has been stalled due to internal inertia and, says Cicchino, the current regulatory environment. The agency may propose some pedestrian-oriented changes again this year, but a new report from the Government Accountability Office (a federal agency often referred to as the “Congressional watchdog”) took a dim view of NHTSA pedestrian safety efforts since 2008, noting that the agency has dithered in collecting pedestrian injury data, and that automakers say a lack of communication leaves them unsure of the regulatory environment for features like crash-avoidance technology.
Multitasking is a myth; what we actually do is something called task switching, which is exactly what it sounds like: we rapidly shift our attention from task to task.
Finally, technology—the root of modern distraction—can be turned to our advantage. Both Reimer and Hu are proponents of active protection systems. While passive systems like pop-up hoods aim to limit damage in a crash scenario, active systems prevent crashes altogether or reduce impact speeds. A 2011 study in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention suggested that automatic emergency braking (AEB) had the potential to mitigate the severity of pedestrian head injury by up to 80 percent. A 2018 analysis by the IIHS of one pedestrian-detection system with AEB, Subaru’s EyeSight package, found that pedestrian-related insurance claims were 35 percent lower for vehicles with the system compared to identical vehicles without it.
But these systems are far from perfect, and as Reimer and Cicchino point out, certain types of driver-assist technology, like lane keeping, could actually tempt drivers to hand off control and attention.
What’s ultimately needed, thinks Reimer, is an industry shift in philosophy about what driver assistance should do. “The harsh reality is that it will probably be decades until autonomous technology has a major impact on how we move,” he says. Instead, driver-assist systems should prompt the driver to pay attention, through active monitoring and management. (Some, like Cadillac’s Super Cruise, already do this.) “Humans need help making better moment-to-moment decisions,” he says.
But we can’t rely solely on technology to save us. Android and Apple already have do-not-disturb-while-driving functions that can activate automatically upon detecting driving, shutting off essentially all notifications on our phones. But so far, the only real stats we’ve seen on do-not-disturb’s effectiveness are in a study from EverQuote, which found that, even among adopters, phone use while driving dropped just 8 percent.
I’ll never know why that driver in the Grand Cherokee so flagrantly ran a red light, and maybe better assistive technology could have prevented it. But so would something far simpler, something every driver can access right now: the awareness that, at any moment, the vehicle we’re piloting can change—or end—the life of another human being. That’s true even if you drive a Honda Fit, but the potential for devastation rises along with the height of your hood.
After the Jeep, and my life, flashed in front of my eyes, I turned to watch it continue on its path. I never saw brake lights, and at the point of near collision, there was no slowing, no swerving. I’d be surprised if the driver even saw me.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly defined Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) as including a vehicle's maximum towing weight. The story has been updated with the correct definition. Outside regrets the error.