Metropolis

The Car Safety Feature That Kills the Other Guy

When we count on vehicle size to protect us in a crash, what do we expect to happen?

A close-up of a black Ford F-150 with skulls in the headlights.
Safer for whom? Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Pavel Anoshin/Unsplash and Lucas van Oort/Unsplash.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does not generally court controversy. Founded in 1959 by auto insurance companies, the group is “dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries and property damage from motor vehicle crashes through research and evaluation.” The nonprofit organization frequently publishes reports with insomnia-curing titles like “Parametric Study of Booster Seat Design Characteristics” and “Assessing Tether Anchor Labeling and Usability in Pickup Trucks.”

So it was a surprise when the Insurance Institute found itself at the center of a social media maelstrom on Oct. 18, during what was dubbed Teen Driver Safety Week.

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The impetus was a tweet recommending that teens drive large cars because, as an accompanying illustration stated, “smaller cars provide less crash protection.” That advice to go bigger conflicted with growing concerns about the risk that big SUVs and trucks create for those walking and biking.

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The response was harsh (including from me). “What about people *outside* the car?” asked one person. “This is terrible advice and will result in more traffic deaths,” posted another. A typical IIHS tweet elicits a few comments at most; this one received over 180, virtually all of them critical.

As with most online dust-ups, the fiery words soon subsided. IIHS seemed to extend an olive branch the next day, tweeting, “We are pursuing a comprehensive approach to improve safety for everyone, including pedestrians and cyclists.” Russ Rader, the Insurance Institute’s senior vice president of communications, blamed the kerfuffle on miscommunication: “There are a lot of sensitivities out there about how to solve road safety problems.”

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That’s certainly true, but the episode underscored a widening fissure in U.S. transportation policy and advocacy. For decades, roadway safety efforts have focused on a single, dominant mission: Protect the people inside cars. At first, that meant correcting obviously dangerous vehicle designs and mandating essential features like seat belts. Such efforts were good and well; society is clearly better off when a car is less likely to flip over on a curve and eject its passengers.

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But vehicle safety issues are very different now. Car buyers who purchase an SUV or truck “to protect themselves” are turning safety into a zero-sum game, with pedestrians and cyclists paying the price.

As the Insurance Institute pointed out in its tweet, buying a bigger car can be a rational choice for an individual or family. But when you scale that decision across an entire nation, it’s a recipe for carnage.

If there were a single catalyst of the modern road safety movement, it was almost certainly the publication of Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed. With an obsessive eye for detail, Nader delved into the flawed designs of vehicles like the Chevrolet Corvair, which had a deadly habit of overturning.

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The book’s sales were modest until General Motors was caught hiring detectives to uncover dirt on Nader. An outraged Congress finally made automobile safety a federal issue, creating the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in 1966 and founding the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, in 1970.

The H in NHTSA underscores the federal focus on motor vehicle occupants; unlike streets, highways are virtually devoid of anyone else but drivers and their passengers. To this day, the encyclopedic federal safety standards contain rules on everything from windshield wipers to brake pads, but nothing related to risks borne by those outside the car.

With car safety a federal priority, driving gradually became less dangerous during the 1970s and 1980s. Beyond correcting obviously flawed designs like the Corvair and the explosion-prone Ford Pinto, automakers adopted now-standard crash protection features like seat belts and air bags.

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Meanwhile, NHTSA sought to empower Americans to make safer vehicle choices. In 1983 the agency launched the New Car Assessment Program, which publicly rates car models’ “crashworthiness” during a collision. NCAP ratings are shared at car dealerships, with the intent of nudging consumers toward safer models. But NCAP has a blind spot: Like the federal safety standards, it ignores all risks to those outside the car.

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Traffic safety advocacy groups have likewise encouraged individuals to make safer driving decisions. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for instance, led a push during the 1980s to add “designated driver” to the American lexicon. Widespread road safety PSAs targeting road users (“Please Drive Carefully”) are largely ineffective, but the Governors Highway Safety Association, founded in 1976 to represent state road safety workers, continues to celebrate them with awards.

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In sum, the U.S. has a federal government focused on protecting those inside a car and an advocacy community that emphasizes individual choice and responsibility.

These conditions have laid the groundwork for today’s surge in pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

After decades of decline, U.S. road deaths flattened and then began rising about 20 years ago. Some 42,915 people died in crashes during 2021, a 16-year high.

Notably, it was also 20 years ago that the American flirtation with SUVs and trucks became an all-out obsession. These vehicles first outsold cars in the U.S. in 2002; they have been gobbling up the market share ever since.

Initial SUV and truck buyers triggered a process that pushed everyone else toward big models too, if only for self-preservation. Drivers in smaller cars frequently struggle to see over taller vehicles ahead. And in a two-car collision, you’re better off being in the heavier one (a preference that the Onion skewered in a story headlined “Conscientious SUV Shopper Just Wants Something That Will Kill Family in Other Car in Case of Accident”). Today, 4 in 5 new car sales in the U.S. are a truck or SUV—which are themselves adding pounds and inches with each new model year.

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SUVs and trucks may leave their occupants feeling safer, but they create grave dangers for everyone else on the street. A 2015 federal study found that an SUV is two to three times more likely to kill a pedestrian than a car is, and economist Justin Tyndall has tied the ascent of SUVs to an increase in pedestrian deaths, which hit a 40-year high in 2021. Cyclist deaths, meanwhile, rose 44 percent from 2010 to 2020.

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The links between these “vulnerable road user” deaths and gargantuan cars are both manifold and intuitive. The heavier weight of SUVs and trucks generates more deadly force in a collision, and their tall front ends increase the likelihood of striking a person’s torso rather than their legs. SUVs and trucks also have dangerously large blind spots from the A pillars between the windshield and front window. Their height is itself a major issue; a television station lined up nine children in front of an SUV, and the driver was unable to see any of them.

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You don’t have to be a traffic safety expert to grasp what has happened: American consumers, equating “safety” with “protecting my family,” have bought ever-larger SUVs and trucks. On net, this trend toward enormity does not seem to have provided a safety dividend to car occupants, whose deaths have risen over the past decade. But it’s been an outright disaster for roadway users who aren’t surrounded by several tons of metal.

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Mark Chung, the vice president of roadway safety at the National Safety Council, criticizes the shift toward ever-larger SUVs and trucks as “an arms race,” but he does not fault those buying big vehicles. “I can put myself in their position and prioritize the safety of their loved one over the societal benefits,” he said. (Disclosure: I have done advisory work for the National Safety Council.) But this gap between individual and social goals widens every time automakers announce their bigger, heavier model designs for the upcoming year. For automakers, the trend toward enormity works out just fine: They make more money on larger cars, and they have little incentive to worry about danger to those outside the vehicle, since neither federal regulators nor their own customers seem overly concerned.

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Given their mission of reducing road deaths, you might reasonably expect national roadway safety groups to issue clear-throated calls to halt so-called truck bloat. The reality is more muddled.

To its credit, the Insurance Institute published a report in 2020 about the growing risks that SUVs pose to pedestrians. And, unlike NHTSA, it evaluates pedestrian detection software in its crash test ratings. But the organization still issues advice like last month’s tweet recommending that people avoid small cars, and it continues to award its top safety rating to large, tall pickup trucks like the Ford F-150, whose design endangers those walking or biking. MADD, for its part, recently held a fundraiser raffle for an SUV and a muscle car (the organization deleted a promotional tweet after it sparked an online uproar).

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Meanwhile, NHTSA continues to emphasize individual driver responsibility over systemic solutions. Announcing yet another surge in U.S. roadway deaths earlier this year, NHTSA’s administrator vowed to “redouble our safety efforts”—and then referenced Click It or Ticket, a decades-old seat belt awareness campaign that does nothing to protect those outside of the car. This spring NHTSA could have finally added pedestrian crashworthiness to NCAP car ratings, a step that would have at least acknowledged the risk of SUVs and trucks, but it demurred.

Other powerful (but seldom discussed) policy levers could better align individual car purchase decisions with a societal goal of reducing crash deaths. France, for instance, applies a tax that scales sharply with vehicle weight, disincentivizing purchases of the largest models by adding tens of thousands of euros to their price. At the state level, insurance regulators could prod auto insurance companies to charge higher coverage rates for the heaviest, most dangerous vehicles.

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Measures such as these won’t be adopted on their own; vocal support from research and advocacy groups is essential. That’s why the Insurance Institute tweet advising against small cars was so troubling: It reinforced Americans’ habit of placing their own safety above that of everyone else. The message wasn’t wrong, insofar as someone myopically interested in protecting themselves or their child might rationally prefer a bigger vehicle. But if a nationally respected group like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety isn’t mindful of the bigger picture, who is?

It’s a question that cuts to the heart of American struggles with road safety. To escape a deadly cycle of ever-expanding vehicles, we need advocates and researchers to lead, and to remind us that staying safe on the road is a collective challenge, not just a personal one.

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