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On pushing back against SUVs

David Zipper, writing for Bloomberg CityLab, has a piece on “How Cities Could Push Back on Pickups and SUVs.”

The American fetish for SUVs and trucks isn’t just an environmental disaster. It’s an urban safety crisis. Larger vehicles that share streets with pedestrians and cyclists are more deadly than compact or mid-sized cars, both because their greater weight conveys more force upon impact and because their taller height makes it likelier they will crash into a person’s head or torso rather than their legs. Worse, because SUV drivers sit so much higher than similarly sized minivans, blind spots can prevent them from seeing people standing in front, especially children.

The dangerous-by-design nature of large vehicles is not only well-documented now, it’s also stupidly obvious to anyone who travels by foot or on a bicycle. The vehicle that hit bike blogger Pattie Baker was an SUV. Until recently, however, their deadly nature has been mostly avoided in the mainstream conversation (even by people opposed to SUVs).

Zipper briefly touches on the national political and corporate circumstances that allow SUVs to thrive, but his primary argument is that change has to happen at the local level.

If city leaders want to see fewer of these dangerous, hulking vehicles on their streets in the coming years, they’ll need to take action themselves. Here are a few ways cities could nudge residents to choose smaller, safer models.

He goes on to make several convincing suggestions, which are worth reading in their entirety in his original article.

The irony of SUV safety perceptions

Zipper notes that Americans tend to oppose any restrictions on what vehicles they are able to drive. He attributes it to a “century of automotive narratives touting ‘freedom’ behind the wheel,” but there’s another dimension to America’s love affair with SUVs. Drivers are drawn to big cars because they believe the cars to be safer. For themselves, of course, not pedestrians.

This isn’t necessarily wrong, since bigger cars are designed to protect the people inside. It’s not an accident that drivers “feel” safer inside larger vehicles. That’s even without considering the effects of corporate marketing.

But the safety of the people inside the cars comes at the expense of the safety for everyone outside. It’s led to a kind of arms race where our roads and vehicles keep getting larger and more dangerous, so people feel pressured to get larger vehicles to protect themselves. America has a long and complicated history of personal comfort versus the wellbeing for others, and the rise of SUVs is yet another chapter in that story.

When we’re talking about literal tons of metal speeding through our streets, the issue isn’t just about wellbeing or safety though, but actual life or death. Thankfully, there are people who recognize that sometimes individual comfort doesn’t take precedence over someone else’s life.

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