Skip to main content

Pickup trucks and SUVs are worse for the environment than smaller cars, and considerably more dangerous to anyone hit by them. They are also some of the most popular automobiles in Canada. A new report from a collection of advocacy groups urges governments to tame the risks posed by these vehicles through strict regulations that could include requirements for special licences to drive them, and limited bans on them in some circumstances.

“We’ve been sleepwalking into an arms race on our streets,” said University of Windsor law professor Chris Waters, one of the authors of the report.

“Drivers of conventional cars are put at risk as well. So this is not a drivers-versus-cyclists type of thing. This is not another chapter in the culture wars. This is a community safety issue, which I think all politicians should get behind.”

The number of SUVs and light trucks sold in Canada has ballooned from about half of all new vehicle sales 15 years ago to more than eight in 10 sales today.

The last decade of data in Ontario shows that vehicles in general have become safer for their occupants, but not for pedestrians, whose share of road deaths has risen. According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, 910 pedestrians across the country were killed by cars from 2018 through 2020.

In some other countries, where gas taxes are high, large private vehicles are comparatively rare. Some places have also moved to reduce the appeal of SUVs and light trucks, mostly through higher-cost parking and registration. In Canada, though, such measures remain rare.

The 106-page report, released Thursday, outlines a new approach. Among its 11 recommendations is a call for governments to mandate safer vehicle designs. The report also calls for advertising rules that would require warnings about the dangers of these vehicles. It recommends city governments be given the power to ban the use of large vehicles on dense urban streets or in community safety zones. And it suggests parking fees that are higher for larger vehicles, and auto safety ratings that take into account risks to cyclists and people on foot.

The group behind the report includes environmental organizations, public-transit boosters and safety advocates. They have banded together under the name Coalition to Reduce Auto Size Hazards, or CRASH.

The report cites a 2022 study that found children are eight times more likely to die when hit by an SUV than when they are hit by a regular car. And it points to recent research showing that the increasing size of vehicles can have deadly effects: for every 10 centimetres of additional height on the front of end of a vehicle, there is a 22-per-cent increase in pedestrian fatality risk, the researchers found.

The added risks associated with larger vehicles have been known for years. Safety advocates have long warned that higher front ends are more likely to hit people in their chests, causing greater injuries than sedans, which are more likely to knock people’s legs out from under them. Larger vehicles also have greater mass, which can result in them hitting with more force.

The designs of large SUVs and pickup trucks can also mean restricted visibility for drivers. A 2021 analysis by Consumer Reports found that some trucks had a forward blind spot more than three metres longer than those of sedans. The higher and longer the vehicle’s hood, the larger the blind spot.

Even so, vehicles have been bulking up. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, vehicle weights have gone up about 25 per cent since 1980. And there has been little political pushback against the use of larger vehicles.

Some of the report’s recommendations have already been floated elsewhere. The National Association of City Transportation Officials, which counts a number of Canadian municipalities among its members, has previously called for governments to incorporate risk to pedestrians into vehicle safety ratings.

A European Parliament committee has proposed special licences for drivers of heavier private vehicles. A vehicle registration fee based on weight is in place in Washington. And parking costs based on vehicle size exist in Paris and a borough of Montreal.

Some proposals in the CRASH report are more ambitious. One calls for design requirements that would make large vehicles no more dangerous than a smaller car. But Canada and the United States operate in a shared auto market, making manufacturers reluctant to redesign vehicles for this country alone.

Albert Koehl, with Toronto Community Bikeways, one of the groups behind the recommendations, acknowledged that policy changes can take time. He noted that lower urban speed limits and redesigned streets – safety suggestions that were initially ridiculed – are now standard in many Canadian cities.

“It takes someone to say it, to demand these things, and people’s response initially will be, ‘That’s not very realistic,’” he said. “That line – it’s a bit of an excuse, right? We have control over these things.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe