The First Step to Ending Pedestrian Deaths? Tax Heavy Cars In Cities

Photo: PxHere, CC
Photo: PxHere, CC

This blog post was originally published on Urban Wire, the blog of the Urban Institute and is the second part of a three-part series. Check out part I here, and check back tomorrow for the final installment. 

The GMC Sierra 2500 HD pickup truck more closely resembles a battering ram or small tank than a commuter’s car. Weighing more than 6,000 pounds and standing more than six-and-a-half feet tall, the truck casts an imposing façade. It’s all part of its physical appeal, according to the truck’s designer.

“We spent a lot of time making sure that when you stand in front of this thing it looks like it’s going to come get you,” Karan Moorjani, the designer, told Muscle Cars and Trucks magazine. “It’s got that pissed-off feel.”

Moorjani compared the truck with the barrel of a gun for its strong body and powerful fenders, which feels apt given the inordinate danger the hulking vehicle poses to anyone outside the driver seat.

As American cars have ballooned in size over the past three decades, the menace cars like the GMC truck pose to pedestrians and cyclists has increased in lockstep. Those hit by the heaviest vehicles—cars weighing more than 4,000 pounds — are two to three times more likely to die than people hit by smaller cars, a major issue in the context of increasing US pedestrian fatalities. Big trucks also pollute more and do more damage to roads.

Now, policymakers in Washington, D.C. are attempting to curb the spread of these oversize vehicles. The city is the first in the nation to propose a targeted charge by vehicle weight: an annual registration fee of $500 for owners of cars weighing more than 6,000 pounds. Those with cars weighing 3,500 to 6,000 pounds would pay $175 to $250, while those with smaller cars would pay just $72. That’s a difference of $4,280 in registration fees over 10 years: $5,000 versus $720.

Although D.C.’s policy would put a dent in heavy-car-owners’ wallets, it falls short of similar weight charges in other countries. To successfully encourage the creation of a safer, more environmentally friendly vehicle fleet, it may need to be just the first step.

The US obsession with large vehicles

Despite its outlandish size, the GMC Sierra is one of America’s favorite cars. In 2021, nearly one-quarter of a million Sierras were sold, making it the 13th most popular car in America. The three most popular are other trucks just as big as the Sierra.

Today, more than 75 percent of all cars sold in the US are light trucks, including pickups, SUVs, and minivans. Light trucks’ share of vehicles sold first surpassed passenger cars, like sedans, in 2002, and has only increased since.

Vehicle weight has dramatically increased since 1980, with the average car sold in the US weighing around 1,000 pounds more now than it did then — a 33-percent increase. And despite their environmental benefits, electric cars and trucks may worsen this weight problem because their batteries are heavier than gas-powered engines. The Hummer Edition 1 electric pickup, for example, weighs 9,000 pounds.

These bigger cars — whether gas or electric powered — take a heavier toll on the country’s infrastructure than smaller cars, requiring more frequent road maintenance. And their weight contributes to increased cancer-causing particulate pollution resulting from brake and tire wear.

They also pose a greater risk to pedestrians and cyclists. Consumer Reports found the average pickup truck’s hood height has increased by 11 percent since 2000. The Sierra’s hood, which sits nearly 55 inches off the ground, is taller than the average US fourth grader, for instance.

Higher hoods force drivers to look further down the road, and the pillars that hold up the truck’s roof, which must be wider given the increased weight, obstruct the driver’s peripheral vision. As a result, a driver in a larger car may not see an elementary or middle schooler shorter than the car’s hood stepping off the sidewalk to get his soccer ball out of the street—until it’s too late.

Studies have shown that collisions between larger vehicles and pedestrians are more likely to result in serious injury and death. Because these vehicles are taller, they are more likely to hit pedestrians higher on their bodies, around the torso. The increased weight means these vehicles take longer to slow down, and they collide with more force than smaller cars.

Vehicle weight vs. vehicle shape

Although the D.C. government’s heavy vehicle registration fee is the first of its kind in the US, it’s not unique globally. France introduced a weight charge in 2020 that applies to the purchase price of vehicles weighing more than 1,800 kilograms (around 4,000 pounds). Each kilogram above that limit costs the owner another €10, on top of a preexisting carbon emissions charge on new cars. To register Moorjani’s GMC Sierra in France, it would cost around €9,670, or about twice the 10-year registration fees D.C. has instituted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Sierra is not sold there.

France makes exceptions for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids because of their lower greenhouse gas emissions, and families with three or more children receive discounts. The country’s former ecological transition minister, Barbara Pompili, explained the fee was enacted because “the increasing weight of the automotive fleet means more material and more energy consumed, more pollution, and less available public space.”

In general, cars in the European Union are smaller than those in the US, with the average car sold in the EU having just 75 percent of the average US car’s weight. Although France’s fee is too new to effectively evaluate, it seems likely that this policy will reinforce the differences in weights between the US and France.

Part of the size difference can also likely be attributed to more stringent car safety testing requirements. Whereas the US allows higher hoods, and thus taller and larger cars, European and Japanese regulators have pushed for changes like “active hoods,” which increase the space between the hood and the engine block to decrease pedestrian injuries. In some cases, car models made in the US feature these hoods, but they’re only included when they’re exported to Europe and Australia.

European car safety testing also specifically assesses new cars for their potential for pedestrian injuries, which the US does not, and mandates that new vehicles include automated braking that detects pedestrians and cyclistsPedestrian deaths in the EU decreased since 2010, but they continued to tick upward in the US.

How policymakers can create safer streets

The proposed D.C. legislation takes an important first step in encouraging car buyers to purchase smaller vehicles, which could reduce average vehicle size and ultimately protect pedestrians from the menace posed by large hoods and heavy weights.

Cities and states nationwide can learn from European car safety standards to develop new regulations that decrease the likelihood of someone dying in a car collision. Active hoods, head impact zones, and safety glass can all make the front end of bigger cars safer for pedestrians, even if a truck still looks “like it’s coming to get them,” as Moorjani said. Improved technology, such as collision-warning sensors and blind-spot information systems in vehicles, can also compensate for limited visibility.

Perhaps most importantly, policymakers can begin to alter America’s car-centric culture by creating more walkable environments, where people are less likely to be hit. Registration fees like DC’s proposal can begin to shift the market and encourage smaller vehicles, but investing in public transit and pedestrian-friendly urban infrastructure will lead to safer streets, even with bigger cars.

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