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Study: America’s SUV Spree Spurred Pedestrian-Death Surge

5:49 PM EDT on July 27, 2021

The safety that drivers feel behind the wheel of an SUV comes at a deadly cost.

According to a recent study published in Economics of Transportation, as the number of SUVs on the street tripled from 2000 to 2019, pedestrian deaths surged nationwide by 30 percent.

The paper's author, Justin Tyndall, an associate professor at the University of Hawai'i, found that across America, places with heavier vehicles also saw more pedestrians killed.

The "light truck" category — which includes SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks — used to be vastly outnumbered by cars. By 2019, almost a quarter of all vehicles on the road were SUVs. In 2020, SUVs and "crossovers" accounted for 50 percent of automobile purchases; 20 percent of new vehicles bought were pickup trucks.

Many studies have shown that these vehicles are deadlier for pedestrians because they weigh more and have poor visibility. (Motherboard recently noted that pickup trucks and SUVs are now roughly the size of the M4 Sherman Tank used by Allied forces in World War II.) According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers behind the wheel of these heavier vehicles are two to three times more likely to kill a pedestrian in a collision.

Tyndall reports that these deaths are preventable:

"If the popularity of large vehicles continues to rise there is likely to be a corresponding increase in pedestrian fatalities," Tyndall writes. "Given strict federal regulation of vehicle-safety standards, it is perhaps surprising that there is limited legislation that restricts the overall size and body type of vehicles with the intent of improving pedestrian safety."

Tyndall's findings track with what is happening in New York City. As Streetsblog recently reported, 60 percent of all vehicles in the city are in the SUV category known as "suburbans," and they are increasingly involved in fatal or serious crashes. These drivers killed 70 pedestrians and cyclists and injured 5,926 others in 2019, jumps of 75 percent and 91 percent from 2016. The Department of Transportation two years ago began tracking the road carnage caused by SUVs in order to better inform policy, and has urged driver caution, but has taken no measures to curtail their use, a Streetsblog analysis found.

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