When SUVs and pickup trucks crash
Dinosaurs walk the Earth—actually, they roll over the Earth. Big, honking, heavy SUVs, pickups and station wagons that really had their heyday in the ‘90s but still steamroll our highways… and cause mayhem. Credit where credit is due, Tristin Hopper of the National Post highlighted the danger in late July. “Big cars kill,” wrote Hopper. “They kill because their bumpers don’t line up with sedans and station wagons. They kill because they have stiff frames, and they kill because they’re heavier.” He reminded readers that researchers in Montreal figured out that behind the wheel of an SUV, you’re 224 per cent more likely to cause a fatal crash.
None of this is really new, yet experts suggest more could be done to make bigger vehicles safer. Clay Gabler, a professor at Virginia Tech, did important research on what’s called “crash compatibility,” and his study in the late ‘90s helped prompt an industry consortium of about 15 automakers to change their vehicles. It was a move Gabler calls “really unprecedented.”
But the automakers went for the most straightforward threat first—two cars hitting head-on. “The really unsolved problem is front-to-side crashes, so side impacts, and that’s where you see these tremendous fatality ratios in my research, and I really doubt it’s changed much. If a truck struck a car in the side, for every driver killed in the light trucks, there’d be 25 drivers that were killed in the cars. Just huge ratios.”
In Europe, they may be a little more enlightened. After all, it’s not like you want to roar a Ford F-150 through the narrower streets of Camden Town in London or the Ile de la Cite in Paris. And Chalmers professor Robert Thomson, another crash compatibility expert, points out that our “regulations are designed for the ideal world, and the way to think about it is: how often does a car drive into a concrete barrier?” Some European automakers use less conventional barriers.
Here in Canada, however, it’s hard to see who’s taking leadership on the issue from the private sector. No one we spoke to seems to know of any Canadian counterpart to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group in the U.S. that’s conducted prominent research. Transport Canada told us it’s “conducted numerous SUV to car side impact crash tests” and shares findings with manufacturers and other government organizations. But the last time it seems to have taken point on this issue was signing a “Memo of Understanding” with the industry, aimed at redesigning structures of big cars and offering better protection for side impacts. That was in 2007.
Thomson notes that it’s not just other passenger cars we have to be concerned about, that “it’s a real challenge to get protection systems for pedestrians, because who’s going to benefit from it? If I’m sitting in a car and I hit a pedestrian, that psychology… means that ‘Oh, I can run over him, I’m not hurt. Why should I pay extra?’ And it’s got to come from somebody, it’s got to come from the government, it’s got to come from insurance companies.”
SGI, being a government-owned operation, is aware that it’s probably in a better position than many private insurers to learn when a vehicle’s ride height is altered by an after-market lift kit, or it has after-market oversized tires, or the CMVSS testing and certification is no longer valid. “We do rely on enforcement to identify these vehicles,” says Jennifer Peslari, manager of Vehicle Standards and Inspection for SGI Canada.
Which is good, but it comes after something has been found. Thompson considers the situation analogous to the building code, “and if you want to add another floor to your house, you have to apply for a building permit to make sure that you’re doing something right.” On the other hand, if you walk into your broker’s office to talk about your car and say, “‘I put some bigger tires on it,’ they don’t have that technical background to know whether or not that makes an effect.” When he moved out of B.C. years ago, he says the only inspection done on his own vehicle was for his exhaust system. “There was no safety inspection to make sure that I hadn’t modified the car, or that I hadn’t stuck guns on the top of it… No one ever looked at the car until I was in an accident. By then it was too late.”