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It’s time to rethink what counts as a “safe car”

When I first became interested in writing about road safety a few years ago, my question was simple: Why were so many pedestrians and cyclists dying on US roads? Pedestrian deaths have increased 75 percent in the US since 2010, according to Smart Growth Ameri…



It’s time to rethink what counts as a “safe car”
It’s time to rethink what counts as a “safe car”
When I first became interested in writing about road safety a few years ago, my question was simple: Why were so many pedestrians and cyclists dying on US roads? Pedestrian deaths have increased 75 percent in the US since 2010, according to Smart Growth America’s latest report. The numbers started increasing dramatically in 2020, with pedestrian deaths reaching a 40-year high in 2022. In the intervening years, I’ve learned a lot about the factors that make traffic fatality rates in the US 50 percent higher than they are in other comparable nations. They include dangerous road design that makes it easy for drivers to speed, and a breakdown in traffic enforcement that allows some of the worst drivers to get away with it for so long that they eventually kill someone. I’ve also reported how drivers in the US spend more time using their phones while driving than people in other countries, and on survey data that seems to suggest that drivers in the United States have more lax attitudes toward road safety than their European counterparts. But there’s one thing I still can’t understand. Why has the government failed to address the fact that large, heavy vehicles are deadlier to pedestrians and cyclists than smaller cars? There is actually a way to make cars safer for everyone — and it includes changing how the government rates a “safe car.” In Europe, government regulators test new vehicles to see how dangerous they are for pedestrians and cyclists and include that information in their safety ratings. They’ve been doing it for years. The US does no such thing. Those 5-star safety readings you see for cars? That rating is for people inside the car. So if you’ve read the news about the soaring numbers of vulnerable people being killed on roads, and thought about purchasing something that would be safer for them, you aren’t going to be able to find that information. The government currently isn’t testing for it. I’m not the only one who finds this absurd. A few weeks ago, Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking that they investigate the relationship between vehicle design and pedestrian safety. He also asked the office to suggest what steps the government should consider to reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities. “This deadly trend on our roadways has made the United States an appalling exception among developed countries,” Raskin writes. “Federal regulators could likely do more to address the safety risks to pedestrians and cyclists posed by unsafe vehicle designs.” Vox is reporting on the letter today for the first time. The GAO confirmed to me that it has accepted Raskin’s request and will investigate the issue. For people who care about the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, this is a small but important win. The government has known vehicle design plays a role in pedestrian fatalities for decades, but it’s been slow to act. Last year, an estimated 3,373 pedestrians were killed while walking in the US between January and June alone. “We’ve faced a situation where it is getting safer and safer to be inside a vehicle, while becoming more and more dangerous to be outside a vehicle, and it’s time for us to turn this situation around,” says Dan Langenkamp, a constituent of Raskin’s. Langenkamp became a safe streets advocate after his wife, Sarah Debbink Langenkamp, was killed while riding her bike in 2022. As a diplomat, Debbink Langenkamp had been evacuated from Ukraine for her safety after the Russian invasion, only to be killed by a truck on a street in the Washington, DC, suburbs. “Without legislators doing this, our government won’t move, I don’t think,” Langenkamp says. We’ve known that bigger, heavier vehicles are more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists for decades. In 2004, researchers at Rowan University published a study which noted that light trucks — vehicles like SUVs and pickups — posed a greater risk of life-threatening head or thoracic injuries when they hit people due to their size, weight, and relative stiffness. Another systematic review of available research performed in 2010 found that the risk of a fatal injury for pedestrians struck with a light truck was 50 percent greater than it was for someone hit by a conventional car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees vehicle safety ratings, has been circling around the idea of adding pedestrian safety tests for years now. The agency asked the public in 2015 for commentary on adding a pedestrian protection testing program similar to those used in Europe. In 2022, NHTSA suggested a 10-year road map to upgrade the overall safety ratings, called the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP. Last year the agency proposed not changing the 5-star rating system immediately, in favor of issuing a “pass-fail” grade for vehicles on pedestrian safety and making the grades available online. The agency says it will consider updating the ratings in future updates to NCAP. Anyone who’s worked on policy before knows that change takes a lot of time, especially where the government is concerned. But this feels like way too long, especially considering the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths in recent years. Vox reached out to NHTSA for an update on their efforts, but they didn’t respond by publication time. Thousands of people are dying while walking in the US every year — too many to justify waiting another 10 years before making meaningful, substantive change to how we rate vehicles. Even lawmakers are frustrated. “For too long the federal government has prioritized moving cars quickly to the exclusion of all other transportation priorities. This philosophy has had deadly ramifications,” says Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who’s been pushing Congress for safer streets and vehicles for 28 years. “It’s time to design vehicles that don’t maim pedestrians. It should not be this hard.” This story originally appeared in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.