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Sunday 19 January 2020
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Sport Utility or Sub-Urban assault Vehicle?

“SUV drivers are aggressive,” “SUV drivers are selfish and insecure,” “pickup drivers are the worst” are, according to Google, among the most common search terms related to drivers of these light trucks.

As amusing as this "war of the vehicles" is, there does appear to be justification for the bitterness aimed at those perched higher off the ground.

The International Energy Agency reported in 2019 that global fuel efficiency gains have slowed from an average rate of 1.8 per cent a year from 2005-2016, to 0.7 per cent in 2017. Far short of the three per cent needed to stabilise global emissions. One of the key factors noted was the rapid rise in light truck sales, comprising SUVs, pickups, and crossovers.

How many times have you seen one of these vehicles taking up two parking spots, or sticking into the aisle and disrupting the traffic circulation for everyone else? Our roads are sometimes barely wide enough to handle mid-sized sedans, far less a heavy flow of light trucks.

Then there’s the danger that these vehicles pose to every other road user.

Raw traffic fatality data shows that SUV drivers do in fact appear to be safer in the event of certain collisions than drivers of smaller cars. There is a catch, however. The mere presence of light trucks on the roads means that the safety of all other road users is compromised.

The popularity of these vehicles appears to be emblematic of a much wider societal issue: self before community.

In a head-on collision, a sedan driver is as much as seven times more likely to die than the SUV driver. This has little to do with the inherent safety of the sedan, and much to do with the destructive height, weight, and design characteristics of the latter. Should we all drive light trucks then? Probably not, since a light truck on light truck collision also creates problems for both drivers, due to the impact force – as a result of weight – exerted upon both vehicles.

However, it’s the forgotten road users who seem to be faring the worst. The rise of light trucks is being singled out as one of two major reasons –the other being cell phone usage – for a massive spike in pedestrian deaths in many highly-suburbanised countries.

It’s being called an epidemic, and those most at risk are typically children, the elderly, and low-income individuals –who are more likely to be pedestrians.

The Dangerous by Design 2019 report really puts the issue into perspective: “between 2008 and 2017, drivers struck and killed 49,340 people who were walking on streets all across the US. It’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of people crashing – with no survivors – every single month.”

In the US, pedestrian deaths as a percentage of all road fatalities increased from 11.8 per cent in 2008 to 16.1 per cent in 2017 to give a fatality rate of 1.91 per 100,000 population. In TT, pedestrians made up a staggering 30 per cent of road deaths in 2017 to give a fatality rate of roughly 2.5 per 100,000 population, according to figures from Arrive Alive TT’s website.

Apart from the sheer force of being hit by a much larger vehicle, there is also the issue of design. According to one of the researchers for an Insurance Institute of Highway Safety report, “SUVs are higher off the ground, stiffer, and have blunter geometry in the front compared with the more sloping front ends of cars. These features can lead to more injuries when a pedestrian is struck, especially to the chest and head.”

Add to that the visibility problems that taller vehicles create for other drivers – such as impaired views of traffic lights – as well as for themselves, for example when children step in front of them.

It also doesn’t help that – according to a 2017 study in Vienna, Austria – SUV drivers are significantly more likely to drive unbelted, violate traffic lights, and drive while on the phone. SUVs even masculinise behaviour in women, causing them to engage in these risky acts at similar rates to their male counterparts.

Another study confirmed that those who view the road from the eye height of a light truck choose to drive faster than from the height of a car.

There may in fact be legitimate reasons for purchasing these vehicles for personal use, such as those in areas that flood chronically, or are forced to drive on truly deplorable roads.

How many of us though are really buying them simply to keep up with the Alis and the Josephs or as an outward expression of some unfulfilled inner desire to appear tough and threatening, at the expense of everyone else?

Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or email him at ryan@darmanieplanningdesign.com

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