Federal regulators have known about the inherent dangers large vehicles pose to vulnerable road users since the mid-1970s, but have done next to nothing to stop them – and likely won’t until America radically reconsiders its highest safety agency’s mission aligns to put transportation justice and not consumer protection, argues a new legal research paper.

In a mandatory article in the University of Pennsylvania’s Law Review, researcher John Saylor traces the story of how light trucks (an umbrella category that includes SUVs, pickups, and large vans) came to dominate American roads, and which ones Role in this, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congress, and even some of the most beloved heroes of the road safety movement helped make this possible.

Today, megacars account for a staggering 75.9 percent of new car sales – a number that is up from 53 percent eight years ago and that experts expect to be up to three times that despite (or because of) the fact that people walk , still growing, they are more likely to be killed if hit by the drivers of such vehicles. The megacar boom is widely recognized as one of the main causes of the U.S. pedestrian death crisis, but it is also killing other motorists: drivers of smaller cars are 158 percent more likely to be killed by pick-up truck drivers in the event of a collision. and 28 percent more likely if hit by someone behind the wheel of an SUV.

And that death toll is not evenly distributed. Because women, low-income people, and people of color are less likely to buy large cars, they are also disproportionately more likely to be killed by the driver of a car.

There’s a mountain of evidence that today’s most popular cars are too dangerous for anyone outside the vehicle, but the Department of Transportation has long hesitated to regulate them – and particularly to set limits on the size, weight, or aggressive design of vehicles at the front -End of a light truck can be legal. So far, only one Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Act has explicitly addressed the effects of a vehicle design on the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchair users and repealed it in 1994; The agency has not proposed another in 40 years.

Here’s why – and what you can do about it.

Why the NHTSA left pedestrians behind

It’s tempting to assume the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has slept behind the wheel since the light truck crisis began, but Saylor says that’s not entirely true. Improving overall pedestrian safety was actually one of the key catalysts for the National Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which helped establish the administration itself – and studying the dangers of excessive vehicle height and weight was one of the first things the newly formed agency did.

In 1975, just five years after the NHTSA was founded, it published a report that stated that “most importantly” [crash] Injury-causing parameters “were” vehicle mass, vehicle height and the ratio of vehicle height to pedestrian height “. The report aimed to assess the risks of the massive “grandpa-style Oldsmobile” that grew in popularity in the ’70s, as Saylor puts it, but it would prove a prophetic warning as urban attack vehicles take a larger share of the threat Car market claimed. and especially when the Ford Explorer sparked a national SUV boom in 1990.

“When I started this project, I expected pedestrian safety to be something the NHTSA had never thought of,” said Saylor. “It was really surprising to find out that at four or five different points they had actually gone to great lengths to learn about pedestrian safety standards and crash compatibility standards and it fizzled out.”

When consumer protection trumps pedestrian protection

How did the NHTSA become an agency that does little more to protect pedestrians from an accelerating megacar crisis than to ban hood ornaments and the occasional public awareness campaign accusing victims? Saylor argues that this starts with the consumer protection language enshrined in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 itself.

“Although the Motor Vehicle Safety Act provided safety standards to ensure that ‘the public is protected from undue risk’ … it required that any proposed standard be ‘appropriate for the particular type of motor vehicle for which it is mandated’,” said Saylor writes. “According to the Senate report, this seemingly harmless reservation should ensure that legislators prioritize ‘favoring consumers’ [a] wide range “on the market, which was soon interpreted to mean that the standards could not be used to” eliminate “a certain type of vehicle, no matter how dangerous it was.”

The decision to protect car buyers ‘consumer choices rather than the people these drivers might meet was no accident – but it was also not purely a product of automakers’ greed. Saylor points out that Ralph Nader, the activist most directly responsible for the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, is far better known as the godfather of the consumer protection movement. And when he brought the consumer protection view to the language of the bill, he narrowed the scope of public dialogue about the public health crisis of traffic violence as a whole – what Lyndon Johnson called “the highway sickness” when he called the MVSA – around Focusing solely on blaming automakers for the safety of car buyers.

NHTSA Administrators Joan Claybrook and Ralph Nader.  Source: ZimbioNHTSA Administrators Joan Claybrook and Ralph Nader. Source: Zimbio

That shift, Saylor says, had unintended fatal consequences.

“I don’t want to knock Nader because I don’t think we would have had a lot of auto safety policy without him,” says Saylor. “But when you read his book Unsafe at Any Speed, the stories about pedestrian safety read almost like urban legends; Like a guy rides his bike and rams a Cadillac with big tail fins on the buttocks and gets impaled. And when he talks about more realistic scenarios, like a driver in a broken car who loses control and plows into a group of people on a sidewalk, in the next paragraph he’ll say, ‘This is terrible because the driver was arrested anyway it was the car that was broken. ‘ You read this and think, ‘But wait a minute, what about all the people who have been run over?’ “

The consumer protection view of the NHTSA’s role was further solidified in 1972 when the Motor Vehicle Information and Savings Act began requiring the government to publish consumer educational material on the “accident safety” of cars sold in the US – a term that the Law defined as “the protection that the vehicle offers its occupants”, excluding everyone outside the car.

How to get America out of the mega-car

Regulation of killer cars won’t be easy – and it’s not just up to the NHTSA.

Saylor points out that the top security agency has faced heavy pressure from Congress throughout its history to allow motorists “to buy as much safety equipment as they want” and nothing more. Even seemingly innocuous safety laws – like requiring automakers to install equipment that prevent drivers from starting their cars before they buckle up – have been put down by lawmakers in response to strong public pressure, and U.S. officials are unlikely to accept a stand against the favorite megacars of their constituents in the foreseeable future.

Saylor says, however, that it is not impossible to imagine a future where the Motor Vehicle Safety Act was amended to put traffic justice at the center of the consumer choices of people who buy cars – and where the NHTSA does Has the authority and funding it needs to make that vision a reality.

And until activists achieve that future, it won’t hurt to leave it to the conscience of individual drivers.

“Anything that makes a light truck safer for its occupants also makes it more dangerous for other people,” said Saylor. “How are you going to create a safety rating that recognizes this? When you ultimately put the decision to buy a dangerous vehicle in the hands of someone who has every incentive to buy that car – especially if that person is rather wealthy, white, and man – it doesn’t seem like a sturdy one and fair system. At some point we actually have to regulate these vehicles. “