British Columbia·Stories About Here

SUVs protect drivers, but make everyone else less safe. How do we change that?

Because of its design, SUVs are safer for drivers, but more dangerous for pedestrians. In this instalment of 'Stories About Here,' Uytae Lee explores our love affair with the vehicle — and ways to make roads safer for everyone, drivers and pedestrians alike.

'A bigger, heavier vehicle provides better crash protection than a smaller, lighter one,' study finds

SUVs, left, sit higher off the ground, meaning if it hits a pedestrian, its bumper is colliding with the person's rib cage and vital organs. A sedan, which is shorter, is likelier to hit a pedestrian's legs. (Uytae Lee/Stories About Here)

This story is part of Uytae Lee's Stories About Here, an original series with the CBC Creator Network. You can watch every episode of this series on CBC Gem.


An SUV is two to three times more likely to kill a pedestrian in a collision compared to a regular car, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Why?

It's a design problem.

A key feature of an SUV is that it sits higher off the ground compared to other types of cars. That means if it hits a pedestrian, its bumper is colliding with the person's rib cage and vital organs. 

But more importantly, the vehicle is directly hitting a person's centre of gravity, which means it is more likely to push the pedestrian forwards and run them over.

Compare that to a sedan: with its lower height, it is more likely to clip a pedestrian's legs and send them flying on top of its hood, which is designed to be bouncy like a metal trampoline. Still very painful, but not as likely to be fatal.

That difference is concerning because SUVs are becoming very popular. In 2020, the light truck segment of cars, which includes SUVs, pickups and vans, accounted for 80 per cent of new car sales in Canada, according to Statistics Canada — a share that's been growing for the last decade.

At the same time, sedan sales have fallen off a cliff, accounting for just barely 20 per cent of new vehicles sold in 2020. 

Increase in pedestrian deaths

Meanwhile, pedestrian deaths are increasing.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada reported a 5.6 per cent increase in pedestrian deaths between 2010 and 2018, while deaths among cyclists, drivers and motorcyclists all saw decreases. 

But this trend is really apparent when you look at data coming from the United States. Pedestrian deaths there had been decreasing since the 1980s, but in the last decade they've been sharply rising again, according to numbers from the Governors Highway Safety Association, which monitors traffic safety.

In 2020, light trucks including SUVs, pickups and vans accounted for 80 per cent of new car sales in Canada, while sedan sales accounted for just barely 20 per cent. (Uytae Lee/Stories About Here)

And according to the United States' National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, while SUVs account for only about a third of pedestrian collisions, they are responsible for closer to 40 per cent of fatalities.

Still, people buy SUVs for a reason. Ironically, one of the biggest reasons is safety.

A vehicular 'arms race'

In a study of vehicle deaths between 2015 to 2018, sedans registered 48 deaths per million owners every year. That number for SUVs was nearly half, at 25 deaths per million owners.

The bigger the vehicle, the less likely the risk of death for its passengers. This can be seen for other large vehicles, like minivans and pickup trucks. 

By that same token, smaller cars were more likely to be deadlier cars. The deadliest car in the study was the Ford Fiesta, a mini-sedan which registered 141 deaths per million owners every year.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which wrote the study, puts it plainly: "A bigger, heavier vehicle provides better crash protection than a smaller, lighter one, assuming no other differences."

The SUV is a bigger car, making it a safer car. So drivers buy bigger cars, which are more dangerous to smaller cars, leading to what economist Michelle Wright called an "arms race" of vehicle sales.

So how do we make our roads safer, not just for people in big SUVs, but for everyone?

Find out in Stories About Here: The Problem with SUVs.

About this series

Stories About Here is an original series with the CBC Creator Network that explores the urban planning challenges that communities across Canada face today. In each episode we dig into the often overlooked issues in our own backyards — whether it's the shortage of public bathrooms, sewage leaking into the water, or the bureaucratic roots of the housing crisis. Through it all, we hope to inspire people to become better informed and engaged members of their communities.

You can watch every episode of this series on CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Uytae Lee produces videos that educate people on the urban planning challenges cities face today. He is the creator of the CBC series “Stories About Here,” where he explores often overlooked issues in our own backyards. In addition to producing videos for CBC, he hosts a YouTube channel called “About Here." You can reach Lee at aboutherevideos@gmail.com.

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