Chart of the week: Chunky trucks

America's vehicle fleet is getting heavier, and deadlier as a result.

From 2000 to 2019, the average weight of a vehicle involved in a fatal crash increased by roughly 400 pounds.

That’s according to a study published earlier this year by Justin Tyndall of the University of Hawaii.

Since 2000, vehicle fatalities among drivers and their passengers have fallen by about 20 percent, while fatal crashes involving pedestrians have risen by 30 percent. Perhaps most alarmingly, the share of fatal crash vehicles weighing more than 2,500 kilograms — 5,500 pounds, or roughly the weight of a tricked out Ford F-150 — rose from less than 4 percent to more than 12 percent over the same period.

Tyndall was curious about this: how much of the increase in pedestrian fatalities can be attributed to the increasing size and weight of American trucks and SUVs?

He ran some analyses on the vehicles involved in fatal crashes in America’s metropolitan areas — home to 77 percent of the population, and the places were pedestrian strikes are most likely to occur. He controlled for driver and vehicle age, alcohol use, overall healthcare quality in the region, and a bunch of other metro-level demographic variables like gender and educational breakdowns.

He found that between 2000 and 2019, if you replaced all SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans on the road with regular cars, it would have saved north of 8,000 pedestrian lives — a measure of some of the external costs of driving a larger, heavier vehicle. Minivans account for less than 20 percent of that total, with SUVs and pickups making up the rest. If you focused only on SUVs, and only on the growth since 2000 (i.e., if you replaced all the new SUVs sold since then with regular cars), you’d still save 1,000 lives.

Having a larger vehicle does appear to provide some additional protection to the vehicle’s occupants during a crash. However, this protection is offset by the increased risk the larger vehicle poses to pedestrians. “Driving a larger vehicle offloads fatality risk from the occupants to other road users,” Tyndall writes.

It’s not terribly hard to figure out why bigger trucks are deadlier. More mass = more forceful collisions, a particularly lethal situation when the object being collided with is a soft, squishy sack of meat and bones. One previous study found that “being hit by a 1,000-pound heavier vehicle results in a 47 percent increase in the baseline probability of being killed in the accident.” Another factor is the towering hood height seen on many contemporary trucks. This means that collisions with pedestrians typically happen at chest-level rather than at the legs, resulting in greater odds of death. That elevated profile also creates toddler-sized blind spots directly in front of these vehicles, with obvious unfortunate consequences.

Using established values for the cost to society of a lost life, Tyndall suggests that regulators impost a $750 sin tax on pickup trucks, minivans and SUV’s at the time of sale, to offset the increased risk to pedestrians over the vehicle’s lifespan.

Full disclosure: I drive a mini-van and I was unaware until today of its increased risk to pedestrians in my vicinity. I still love it, though.

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