By Lloyd AlterUpdated July 16, 2020
Ford has just proudly introduced a new, updated version of the Bronco, the company’s Jeep-like off-road capable SUV that was killed in the late 90s. It might seem like an odd time, in the middle of a climate crisis; as Aaron Gordon notes in Vice, “every driver who ‘upgrades’ from a sedan to an SUV is a net-negative for the environment, undoing all of the gains in fuel efficiency since they last bought a vehicle. And over the last several decades, that transition has been the single largest and most significant trend in American transportation.”
Coincidentally, its release comes at a time when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released a brief report, Pedestrian injuries from cars and SUVs: updated crash outcomes from the Vulnerable Road User Injury Prevention Alliance (VIPA), that looks again at the question of the safety of these vehicles. We have noted before that the high flat front of SUVs and pickups is deadly, killing pedestrians at significantly higher rates than a car, as has the IIHS:
Past research has found that SUVs, pickup trucks, and passenger vans pose an outsize risk to pedestrians. Compared with cars, these vehicles (collectively known as LTVs) are 2-3 times more likely to kill the pedestrian in a crash. The elevated injury risk associated with LTVs seems to stem from their higher leading edge, which tends to impart greater injury to the middle and upper body (including the thorax and abdomen) than cars, which instead tend to cause injury to the lower extremities.
This is because there are no standards or regulations for pedestrian safety in the USA, which is the way the manufacturers like it because it would mess up the manly grills, and make every pickup truck look like the wimpy European-designed Ford Transit.
In the EU, cars have to be designed to absorb the force of the pedestrian hitting it, usually by having a space between the hood (bonnet over there) and the engine. Where they don’t have enough room, they actually have an “active bonnet” with explosives that push the hood up to absorb the shock. The Tesla Model S, when sold in Europe, has an active hood that raises three inches; of course, it isn’t sold in North America because pedestrian safety is not a priority.
The IIHS update shows how bad SUVs are for people who walk. Interestingly, they find that the danger varies with speed:
SUVs remain disproportionately likely to injure and kill pedestrians compared with cars, but these differences emerged primarily at crashes of intermediate speed. Crashes at low speeds and high speeds tend to produce similar injury outcomes independent of striking vehicle type (mild and fatal, respectively) The data suggest that the elevated danger to pedestrians from SUVs in these crashes may be largely related to injuries caused by impacts with the vehicles’ leading edge: the bumper, grille, and headlights.
Below 19 miles per hour, the IIHS says SUVs do not seem to cause more injury than cars. This is surprising since cars are generally designed to European NCAP standards (American companies like to sell them there) where the victim is thrown on to the hood instead of flattened on the grille. “Low-speed crashes tend to be benign enough that pedestrians emerge with only minor injuries regardless of vehicle type.” The data in figure 2 don’t make low-speed crashes look so negligible or benign to me, with 8% of those hit by SUVs dying, not to mention all those upper body injuries versus broken legs (they don’t provide those statistics); perhaps they consider 8% statistically insignificant.
At intermediate speeds (20 to 39 miles per hour) 30% of those hit by SUVs died, compared to 23% of those hit by cars. Where the IIHS gets weird is at high speeds; they say that “crashes at low speeds and high speeds tend to produce similar injury outcomes independent of striking vehicle type” but look at the difference: 100% die when hit by SUVs compared to 54% of those hit by cars. And the injuries are different too:
Consistent with past research,7 SUVs were more likely to throw struck pedestrians forward than cars were (36% vs. 26%). Pedestrians struck by SUVs were also nearly twice as likely to be severely injured in the thigh/hip compared with pedestrians struck by cars (24% of all SUV crashes resulted in AIS 3+ [Abbreviated Injury Scale, serious to fatal] injuries compared with just 16% for cars). Severe thigh/hip injuries for pedestrians struck by SUVs were disproportionately caused by impacts with features on those vehicles’ leading edges: the bumper, the grille, or the headlights.
This IIHS study also didn’t take into account the fact that people driving SUVs and pickups tend to drive faster; evidently being so high off the road makes a difference in perception. According to another study, The effect of driver eye height on speed choice, lane-keeping, and car-following behavior, “when viewing the road from a high eye height, drivers drove faster, with more variability, and were less able to maintain a consistent position within the lane than when viewing the road from a low eye height…. drivers choose to drive faster when they view the road from an eye height that is representative of a large SUV compared to that of a small sports car.” This is one reason why I said goodbye to my Miata. The IIHS study concludes:
Despite the changes in vehicle design over the past two decades, SUVs remain disproportionately likely to injure pedestrians compared with cars. Interestingly, the danger that SUVs pose to pedestrians seems to be most pronounced in crashes where the striking vehicle was traveling faster than 19 mph The data suggest that crash characteristics tend to overpower vehicle characteristics for low-speed crashes. That is, low-speed crashes tend to be benign enough that pedestrians emerge with only minor injuries regardless of vehicle type. Crashes at faster speeds are where vehicle design differences begin to predict injury outcomes.
Safety activists around the world will no doubt point to this as more evidence for Twenty is Plenty speed limiting campaigns.
Here comes the Bronco
So here we are in 2020, admiring the new Ford Bronco, designed for exciting, high-speed off-road driving, with “the toughness and smarts to help turn off-road novices into 4×4 pros.” It is introduced in a time of climate crisis, and in a time when people are demanding that the dramatic rise in the rate of deaths of people who walk or cycle be dealt with. Yet in the face of rising carbon emissions and rising death and injury counts, here comes the Bronco. Many call for regulation; I have been saying for years that they should Make SUVs and Light Trucks as Safe as Cars or Get Rid of Them. Aaron Gordon writes that “American automakers have long argued that regulations are an ineffective way to enact positive change, that the free market is the best way to produce progress.” But the fact that a Ford Bronco can be introduced in 2020 proves this to be a fantasy.