Vision Zero Cities Op-Ed: New York Needs SUV Ratings — Now

The assault vehicles killing our children and seniors require a warning label, argues State Sen. Andrew Gounardes.

Car companies try to make them look romantic or heroic, but they're really a menace to society and vulnerable road users.
Car companies try to make them look romantic or heroic, but they're really a menace to society and vulnerable road users.

A version of this article will appear in Transportation Alternatives’s Vision Zero Cities Journal as part of the 2021 Vision Zero Cities Conference, Oct. 20-22, including walking and biking tours on Oct. 22. You can still register for the conference and tours at visionzerocities.org.

VZC-Logo-2021 stroke and datesEvery year, automakers design and manufacture larger and larger SUVs and light-trucks. With each new model, the threat to pedestrians and cyclists rises dramatically, and with that, the urgent need for transformative policies to combat this fatal pattern. These vehicles are far more deadly to pedestrians than sedans: Fatal single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs striking and killing pedestrians jumped 81 percent in the last decade, more than for any other kind of vehicle. For the safety of all road users, we have a responsibility to curb these dangerous cars.

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 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. 

Andrew Gounardes
Andrew Gounardes

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 such as 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.

The need for a vehicle pedestrian-safety rating is indisputable. Today, nationwide, all cars are rated on how safe they are for the people inside them. 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 encourage consumers to buy vehicles that are 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. I hope that New York can inspire a nationwide drive to expose the danger that SUVs pose to vulnerable road users. 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 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 must 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 nationwide. Other countries have realized that legislation can curb the trend of traffic violence caused by oversize vehicles. 

Programs in Europe and Japan, such as the New Car Assessment Program, enable consumers to make more informed choices on vehicle purchases based on independent safety ratings that include pedestrian safety, just like what I’ve proposed.

The European Enhanced Vehicle-Safety Committee developed test specifications and rating systems to assess the potential of pedestrian injury from the front end of vehicles. Through a voluntary agreement, European auto manufacturers require all new cars introduced after 2010 to comply with EEVC pedestrian-safety test requirements. If vehicles here had to comply with such requirements, pedestrian fatalities likely would drop by 20 percent, which would be a dramatic step forward in curbing this deadly trend.

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. 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. With this legislation, however, 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., in order to make our streets safe for all who use 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. 

Andrew Gounardes represents New York’s 22nd State Senate District, which includes Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Marine Park. 

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