Safety Officials to Cities: Stop Buying Such Huge Trucks

Photo: NACTO
Photo: NACTO

Cities that are serious about achieving Vision Zero have to tackle large truck design.

Garbage trucks, fire trucks, commercial freight trucks, which comprise only four percent of vehicles on the streets, are responsible for almost twice that number of pedestrian fatalities and more than one in 10 bike fatalities, according to a new report from the Volpe Center, a research center at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The disparity is much worse in major cities, which is why experts are urging urban policymakers to stop buying wide killing machines.

“Choosing vehicles with safer designs is a simple and proven step that any city can take to help stem the rising epidemic of traffic deaths on our streets,” Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials said in a statement.

The Volpe study offered these recommendations:

Make the vehicles smaller

San Francisco's smaller, more maneuverable fire truck. Photo: NACTO
San Francisco’s smaller, more maneuverable fire truck. Photo: NACTO

Smaller trucks stop faster. And they exert less force when they crash. But firetrucks in particular are just getting too big.

“Fire apparatus have grown in size to the point that emergency vehicles were recently exempted from federal truck weight limits,” the research team wrote. That is putting pressure on the nation’s bridges, many of which weren’t designed to handle fire vehicles weighing as much as 160,000 pounds.

The arms race on large vehicles is happening even as fire departments are becoming less diversified in their missions. Only about 5 percent of calls are related to building fires nationally, Volpe reported.

San Francisco recently ordered a firetruck that is 25 rather than 33 feet. It also has a 24-percent smaller turn radius, which makes it more maneuverable, potentially lowering response times. SFFD was able to do that without sacrificing any water pumping capacity, the Volpe report said.

Right now, there are few small firetrucks commercially available in the U.S. But the report suggested that if a handful of cities would band together, they could entice American manufacturers to consider smaller models.

Cab over design  

Cab over design means the driver sits over the wheel axel instead of way back behind the nose of the truck. This improves visibility by reducing blind spots.

You can see in this visualization that in a traditional truck, the entire bike lane might be invisible while waiting at an intersection.


But smaller, more maneuverable cab over designs have been successfully utilized in cities like Somerville, Mass. (below) to improve safety.

A garbage truck with cab over design. Photo: NACTO
A garbage truck with cab over design. Photo: NACTO

Additionally, cities can choose to lower the cab to further promote visibility and “help the driver to make eye contact and communicate intent with nearby pedestrians and cyclists.”

Trucks can be retrofitted with "peep" windows like this to improve visibility. Photo: NATCO
Trucks can be retrofitted with “peep” windows like this to improve visibility. Photo: NATCO

Add windows

The more windows in the cab, the better the visibility.
Many trucks have enormous blind spots. They make a big difference in how likely they are to avoid crashes.
“At 25 mph, the driver with improved direct vision may stop in about 90 feet, whereas the driver with indirect vision may not stop until 120 feet,” the authors wrote.
Transport for London, a global leader on safe vehicles has redesigned buses so the cab is practically a glass box.
Short of purchasing new trucks, cabs can be cheaply retrofitted peep windows along the sides of vehicles, as shown right, widening the field of vision.

13 thoughts on Safety Officials to Cities: Stop Buying Such Huge Trucks

  1. The thing that continues to surprise me is how many trucks don’t have side guards. Trucks in cities seem to be especially unlikely to have them, because long haul truckers have discovered they make an economic impact through increased mpg.

    U-Haul is the weirdest. Their business model is to rent trucks to untrained drivers, and they don’t install this trivial safety measure. I wonder if U-Haul will require a massive jury decision to get them to install side guards.

  2. A pre-winter storm slammed parts of the South and lower Midwest on Wednesday. The storm swept across the United States on Thursday into Friday causing travel disruptions, massive power outages, school closures and numerous injuries and fatalities. It is the first snowstorm of the season to hit the New York City area. The storm brought several inches of snow to affected areas, slowing Thursday’s evening commute to a crawl and contributing to at least seven traffic deaths as it swept across the country. The storm had a tremendous impact on the eastern U.S. for a number of reasons, according to AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Elliot Abrams. “First, it is the first storm of the year to affect such a large area,” Abrams said. “Second, it is one of the earliest big November storms ever. The last time there was this much snow in New York City before the end of November was in 1938.”

  3. I recently moved to London and the direct vision trucks are incredible. You can get a full size rubbish (garbage) truck where the only blindspot is about 1 foot in front of the cab and 1 metre high. It feels so much safer than the US style (cab back, high windows, no rear vision camera) )trucks that trundle through my home town in New Zealand.

  4. Simple – because it increases costs. And how many U-Haul trucks are involved in fatal collisions? Given that most of their drivers are novices, they’re probably more timid and cautious than most truck drivers. But saying that, most U-Haul trucks have partial guards (body extensions) and have had them for years. They’re probably more for looks than for safety, but any little bit helps. (

  5. Reducing the size of vehicles seems to make sense. However, I think this kind of measures might have negative effects on driving. For example, drivers with smaller trucks may feel they are less dangerous and thus drive faster or without paying attention.

  6. There is another direct relationship between fire truck size and vision zero/safety. Many cities and suburbs are buying large fire trucks with out riggers. These larger trucks require more clear space on the road which makes for larger streets in places that don’t need them, like small residential contexts. This is often written into city ordinance as well. I design a lot of streets as part of my job and many towns will require 13’ lanes instead of 10’ or so (26’ total vs 20’). There is a very large safety difference between those two. 13’ lanes promotes really fast driving, even on local, residential streets. A safety issue that can’t change until the city gets smaller trucks.

  7. that unfortunately is a major reason for the “utility vehicle”, FUV’s and “light trucks” epidemic. the 1990’s book High and Mighty explores the reasoning of cavemen and women for buying them, and domination of the peon car drivers is up there. Turns out they aren’t safer for occupants, although they are more deadly to other road users. They reduce visibility for other drivers, esp in parking lots, give them plenty of space when walking behind them.

  8. I always notice when I travel to Europe how much smaller and more efficient their emergency service vehicles are. A standard Paris police patrol car, for instance, is a compact 4-day Peugeot:

    Whereas many US cities and states have moved towards big Ford Expeditions or even F-115s (at least in the south).

    Similarly, ambulances in Germany are sleek Volkswagen Transporters:

    Not only are they safer and smarter-looking but stand to be more fuel efficient. But as another commenter pointed out, part of the idea here is to appear macho and tower over the other vehicles on the road.

  9. have you seen how fat our cops are? there were compact police cars, but none of them bought them. pretty much no police department bought the caprice. seems like highway patrol is the only ones that buy the chargers. few bought the taurus/fusion cop car, but many have replaced them with explorer’s. I asked several police chiefs and they said they had no space and weren’t comfortable. people in europe are skinny compared to the us.

    Also the emergency vehicles here are bigger because they have to take an impact and still provide adequate safety to the injured passenger

  10. Nothing feels safer than conscious driving. Extreme measures like naked streets force all street users to make use of the space with caution

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