The Route to Pedestrian Safety Starts with SUV Ratings

Knowing which SUVs are the greatest danger to cyclists and pedestrians will push automakers to build safer SUVs

A Jeep turns into a crosswalk, where pedestrians are walking.
(Photo by Scott Heins)

By State Senator Andrew Gounardes

Every year, automakers design and manufacture larger and larger SUVs and light trucks. With each new model, the threat to pedestrians and cyclists increases dramatically, and with that, the urgent need for transformative policies to combat this fatal pattern. The increased threat that these vehicles pose — which is far more deadly to pedestrians than sedans — has made fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs striking and killing pedestrians jump 81 percent in the last decade, more than any other type of vehicle. For the safety of all road users, we have a responsibility to curb this dangerous car culture to save lives and honor those we’ve lost.

The rising number of SUVs on city streets should be of grave concern to us all, especially when traffic deaths, and pedestrian deaths, in particular, are rising around the country. The same is true in New York City, where I am a state senator, and where pedestrian fatalities spiked in 2021. That’s why I introduced a bill that will create a pedestrian safety rating for all models of vehicles registered in New York State. Under the bill, pedestrian safety ratings will be posted on the New York State DMV’s website and on the vehicles themselves at the point of purchase. The system will provide a rating between one and five stars to reflect the safety of each vehicle model, with five stars being the safest and one star posing the greatest threat. From 2016 to 2020, the number of SUVs owned by New York City residents has increased by 21.2 percent according to new data from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. And in 2019, a year that saw the highest number of cyclist deaths in New York City, 25 of the 29 cyclists who were killed that year were killed by drivers behind the wheel of trucks, buses, SUVs, or vans.

Car manufacturers seem unwilling to prevent these tragedies, so it’s time for states to step up and force their hand. We also need to spread awareness that large vehicles like SUVs and trucks, unnecessary for most people in cities, are also far more likely to put people at risk. Awareness is a big step forward in fighting this trend of families being torn apart by traffic violence.

At a rally, a man holds up a sign that reads “STOP letting cars kill people”.
A recent rally in New York City, in response to a reckless driver who killed a baby in a stroller on a Brooklyn sidewalk. (Photo by Scott Heins)

The need for a vehicle-pedestrian safety rating is indisputable. Today, nationwide, all cars are rated on how safe they are for people inside. None are rated on the damage they will do should they strike someone outside the car. My proposal would create a database that rates cars on how safe they are for people outside of them — to both encourage consumers to purchase vehicles less likely to kill their neighbors, to get insurers to charge more for policies on dangerous cars, and in time, to persuade automakers that consumers want their vehicles to be safer for everyone. By passing this bill, I hope that New York can inspire a nationwide desire to reveal the danger that SUVs pose to vulnerable road users outside of the vehicle. It’s my hope that with new safety information displayed at the point of purchase, New Yorkers can better understand how their choice of car puts their neighbors in danger.

Today, manufacturers are currently only required to offer safety ratings regarding a vehicle’s ability to protect occupants. With a growing pedestrian fatality crisis across the U.S., we have an obligation to ensure that consumers who purchase SUVs are aware of the threat they pose to people walking and biking. As Americans continue to purchase larger SUVs and trucks, they may be making themselves safer at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists. In fact, research has shown that SUVs and light trucks are more prone than cars to run over pedestrians, rather than throw them up over the hood, making fatalities more likely when they collide. And because the vehicles usually sit higher off the ground, they have larger blind spots, especially through the rear window.

New York has always been a state of transformative ideas, and measures like these could be a model for street safety policy in our nation. But other countries around the world have already taken initiative and realized that similar legislation can be effective to curb the trend of traffic violence caused by oversize vehicles.

Programs in Europe and Japan like the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) allow consumers to make a more informed choice regarding vehicle purchase based purely on the independent safety rating of a vehicle, which is determined through whole-vehicle crash-testing. Up until the 1990s, the consumer had very little information about the safety of a particular vehicle other than the marketing materials put out by automakers. In most NCAP programs, vehicles are given an overall star rating on a scale from one to five, and this includes pedestrian safety, just like what I’ve proposed.

More international countermeasures to traffic violence have been taken on by the European Enhanced Vehicle-Safety Committee (EEVC). They developed test specifications and rating systems to assess the potential of pedestrian injury from the front end of vehicles. This was carried out through a voluntary agreement proposed by European auto manufacturers that requires all new car types introduced after 2010 to comply with EEVC pedestrian safety test requirements. When vehicles are required to comply with these recommendations, the estimated reductions in pedestrian fatalities should exceed 20%, which would be a dramatic step forward in the goal to curb this deadly trend we’ve seen. And, to bolster one of the goals of my legislation, these methods have effectively increased societal awareness of vehicle design for pedestrian protection, which should reduce injuries. The more information consumers have about the dangers posed by certain vehicles on the lot, the more they are able to make safety-conscious decisions that will help buyers consider the impacts their purchase may have on the lives of pedestrians and cyclists.

State Senator Andrew Gounardes speaks into a microphone. Around him stand the family and friends of Sama Ali with a large poster of her.
Senator Gounardes speaking at a memorial for Sama Ali, a young girl killed in the crosswalk by an armored truck in Brooklyn.

Most people aren’t primed to think about the impact that their vehicle purchases have on the greater safety of people in the environment around them, but with this legislation, we can educate people in a way that will help them see the consequences of their choices.

As an elected official, I have been to too many vigils and spoken to too many family members who’ve lost a loved one to traffic violence. I’ve spoken to the father of a child who was killed when a car jumped the curb and stood side-by-side with the family of a young man who was senselessly killed by a hit-and-run driver. These pedestrians deserve protection as much as people safely ensconced in an SUV. We need to tackle the problem of oversize vehicles in our city, and across the U.S., to make our streets safe for all who use our roads. That’s why I hope that my colleagues and I can pass this measure and ensure that no one has to live in fear of using our roads. I’m confident that through the transparency and accountability of a vehicle-pedestrian safety rating, we can take steps to slow the trend of traffic fatalities and ultimately save lives.

State Senator Andrew Gounardes represents New York’s 22nd State Senate District, which includes the neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Marine Park. He was elected in November 2018. Senator Gounardes is Chair of the Committee on Civil Service & Pensions and has passed key legislation to expand services to 9/11 heroes and promote street safety. He is also a champion of the fight to fix the MTA and fund our public schools and universities. Born and raised in Bay Ridge, Senator Gounardes graduated from Fort Hamilton High School and earned degrees from Hunter College and the George Washington University Law School.

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