On Aug. 16, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, whose climate investments include a muscular effort to convince more Americans to purchase an electric vehicle. The new law offers $7,500 off many new electric or plug-in hybrid cars or trucks, without restricting the number of credits that a carmaker can receive.
A day later the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that American road deaths soared once again in the first quarter of 2022, rising 7 percent to 9,560 fatalities—the highest quarterly toll since 2002.
The two news items may seem unrelated, but they are not. If the U.S. auto industry maintains its current habits, the incipient transition to electric cars could further worsen the deadly carnage on America’s roads.
The United States is already a global outlier in traffic deaths. Unlike virtually all other developed countries, where such fatalities declined during the last decade, the U.S. has seen an increase of over 30 percent. Today, an American is more than twice as likely as a citizen of France or Canada to die in a crash.
Several factors help explain this unfortunate kind of national exceptionalism. Americans drive a lot, relatively speaking, and they take comparatively few transit trips (which are much safer). The U.S. installs fewer automatic traffic cameras, which can save lives, while building many more high-speed urban arterials where road deaths tend to concentrate.
There is another, critical contributor to the American surge in in traffic fatalities: the national penchant for tall, heavy pickup trucks and SUVs. The weight of these behemoths endangers other road users in a crash, and their height leads them to strike a person’s torso instead of their legs (it can also make it difficult to see those standing in front of the vehicle). American deaths among those on foot or a bicycle rose more than 40 percent during the last decade; one study found that the shift to SUVs over the last twenty years led to more than 1,000 additional pedestrian fatalities.
Electrified versions of SUVs and trucks can be even more dangerous. Large vehicles require massive batteries, which add tonnage. The Ford F-150 Lightning, for instance, weighs around 6,500 pounds, about a third more than its gas-powered model. The Hummer EV is even more gigantic, tipping the scales at over 9,000 pounds, with a battery that alone is heavier than an entire Honda Civic. This additional weight creates force during a crash, increasing the danger to pedestrians, cyclists, and occupants of smaller cars.
The heft of electric vehicles is not their only safety risk. Even with heavy batteries, these vehicles’ electric powertrains allow them to accelerate unusually quickly. Chevrolet, for instance, touts its “Wide Open Watts Mode” that allows the Chevy Blazer EV, an SUV, to accelerate from zero to 60 in under four seconds—a speed that is comparable to popular muscle cars like the Dodge Charger and Ford Mustang. A Tesla Model X Plaid is even more powerful, reaching 60 mph in two and a half seconds—faster than any other SUV on the market.
Car companies are touting these acceleration rates as a selling point, which is ominous. Although supercharged pick-up speeds serve no practical purpose, they create real danger for other road users—especially those on foot or in a wheelchair who have scant time to get out of the way.
Carmakers’ celebration of zero-to-60 speeds points to a fundamental problem: Rather than treating electrification as an opportunity to build vehicles that are safer as well as cleaner, automakers are bringing their existing designs and performance metrics into a new, electrified era. They shouldn’t.
Consider the Ford F-150 Lightning. With no need to fit a gasoline engine underneath the hood, Ford could have restructured its front end to slope toward the ground, giving the driver a better view and making it more likely that a pedestrian or cyclist would roll off the top instead of absorbing a collision directly. Instead, Ford kept the tall dimensions of the existing F-150, converting the space underneath the hood into storage that the company calls a “frunk.”
That move may be useful for F-150 buyers, but it’s a missed opportunity to enhance safety. Still, it’s hard to fault Ford for its decision; no regulatory incentive or requirement pushed the company to adopt a less dangerous front end, and few consumers will pay extra for features whose safety benefits accrue to those outside the vehicle.
These risks of electrification are avoidable. With regulation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could set a minimum zero-to-60 threshold on public roads, ensuring that electrification doesn’t invite a reckless acceleration competition among carmakers. The federal government should also address the prisoner’s dilemma of people buying tall, heavy SUVs and trucks—electric or otherwise—merely to avoid being at a disadvantage in a crash with another vehicle. For starters, given the greater danger they pose, heavier cars should incur higher taxes and fees.
Here’s a promising model: The District of Columbia recently adopted a creative vehicle registration fee schedule that charges owners of vehicles weighing more than 6,000 pounds $500 per year, seven times more than those registering light sedans. (D.C. gives EVs a 1,000-pound “credit.”) A sliding scale for vehicle fees can influence buyer decisions, and it also encourages carmakers to utilize battery technology improvements to reduce their vehicles’ weight, rather than to expand driving range from a single charge. (Automakers keep adding battery capacity in response to “range anxiety,” but such concerns are overblown. As a New York Times op-ed recently asked, “You want an electric car with a 300-mile range? When is the last time you drove 300 miles?”)
In fact, we should raise the safety bar even higher and demand that carmakers capitalize on the switch to EVs to develop safer designs. One obvious move is to add pedestrian crashworthiness to federal car crash ratings, called the New Car Assessment Program, to estimate crash risk borne by those outside the vehicle. Europe, Australia, and Japan took this step years ago; the United States is a laggard.
So far, however, neither Congress nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has signaled a desire to ensure that car electrification leads to vehicles that are safer as well as greener. There need not be a tradeoff between efforts to halt climate change and reduce the surging number of American road deaths. But avoiding one requires forethought and initiative. Federal leaders need to show it.