In many respects, vehicles today are safer than they have ever been. Mandatory seatbelt laws, airbags, headlights that turn on automatically and modern crumple zones make the inside of a vehicle an increasingly secure spot. In Canada, the fatality rate per 100,000 vehicles in 2020 was the lowest in at least two decades.
However, safety overseers – at least in North America – have been much slower to address the risk vehicles pose to everyone around them. Hundreds of Canadian pedestrians and cyclists are fatally struck every year.
While European regulators insist on design changes that can protect people outside the vehicle, North American auto safety standards have traditionally not taken them into account.
This is particularly relevant today, because vehicles on this continent have gone on steroids.
The supersizing of cars and trucks is everywhere. The new Volkswagen Beetle is 73 per cent heavier than the model that starred as Herbie the Love Bug.
The changes are even more striking among larger vehicles. The Cadillac Escalade is an SUV so big that up to 13 children can sit in a line in front of it without the driver being able to see them.
Sedans have increasingly been discontinued and marketing muscle poured into bigger, and higher-profit, vehicles that make a sales pitch of their aggressive shape.
The man behind the looks of the 2020 GMC Sierra HD aimed to evoke “a massive fist moving through the air.” Karan Moorjani told Muscle Cars & Trucks he wanted the pickup to look imposing. “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. It’s got that pissed-off feel.”
People who do find themselves in front of such a truck are at much higher risk than if hit by a smaller vehicle. A high and squared-off front end strikes a pedestrian directly in the chest, unlike a sedan that hits lower and can cause the victim to roll onto the hood.
In Europe, regulators have recognized the problem, and rate vehicles’ ability to protect not just the driver and passengers. Vehicles in Europe must meet standards for human impact on the bumper and hood, as well as for sightlines from the driver’s seat. The practical result of these rules is that hoods tend to be shorter and slope down more. Windows are larger.
This helps explain why the Ford Transit, which comes in cargo van or open-bed options, and features a large windshield and stubby raked hood, is the most popular light commercial vehicle in Europe. Last year in the United States it was outsold more than seven to one by the blunt-nosed F-150 pickup truck.
The design of vehicles is just one of the reasons Europeans enjoy safer roads.
The EU took another big step this month toward controlling speeds. As of July, new vehicle models released in Europe must be fitted with intelligent speed assistance (ISA). This uses cameras or GPS to determine the speed limit, and then employs escalating audio and physical cues to discourage drivers from exceeding it. ISA will be mandatory by 2024 on all new vehicles sold in the EU.
Not all such changes could realistically be brought in by Canada alone. The country exists as a bit player in an integrated continental auto market.
But officials here can support and participate in nascent efforts south of the border to make vehicles safer for those outside them. Earlier this year, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration floated the idea of including pedestrian protection in its vehicle safety ratings.
And there are things Canada can do unilaterally.
A commercial licence could be required for the biggest private vehicles, which have surpassed four tonnes in weight. A limit could be put on how high after-market modifications can raise a vehicle. The use of “bull bars” installed in front of the grill could be regulated, as could those spiked lug-nut covers whose only apparent purpose is to intimidate people riding bicycles.
When seatbelt laws were introduced, many people howled. Now the majority of Canadian motorists buckle up without a second thought – and are safer as a result. Some of that same safety ethos should be extended to protect the people these drivers might encounter.
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