Safer roads: Modern cars not so safe for pedestrians and cyclists

What makes driving safer? As holidaymakers hit the highways after another grim annual road toll, Simon Wilson reports on the evidence for what really works in the third of a five-part series.

OPINION: How to make cars safer has been an American preoccupation since 1965, when the consumer activist and lawyer Ralph Nader published the book Unsafe at Any Speed. Nader had trawled through more than 100 lawsuits against General Motors and he demonstrated chapter and verse that cars were routinely designed without due regard for safety. It was a bestseller.

Trying to get people not to care about car safety has also been an American preoccupation for many years: GM hired prostitutes to try to compromise Nader’s reputation. But it didn’t work, and within a year the US Congress had unanimously passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Cars became safer. Steering wheels that impaled the driver were replaced by the energy-absorbing cushion style still in use. Seatbelts became compulsory, along with windshield safety glass and headrests. Motorcyclists had to wear helmets.

Later, child safety seats were invented, along with front and side airbags. There were crumple zones at the front of the car, so that in a collision the engine wouldn’t get shunted back into the interior, and doors were reinforced. Crash testing began, with a safety ratings system to go with it.

And the number of death and serious injuries fell. By 2010, road fatalities in the US were only 54 per cent what they’d been in the 1970s. Oil shocks and other factors played a part, but car safety measures were probably the critical factor.

That year, though, researchers at the Northeastern University in Boston made a remarkable discovery. In the Netherlands, fatalities had fallen much further.

They knew that in 1970, the rates in the Netherlands and the US had been about the same. But now, in the European country, fatalities were down to just 23 per cent of the 1970 rate.

The difference was road design. Not for motorways, but for urban and suburban roads. And the people being killed far less often weren’t in a car at all. They were pedestrians and cyclists.

While America had relied mainly on car safety and more freeways to get the crash rate down, the Netherlands looked more closely at how to make the roads themselves less dangerous. They began the process in 1992 and beefed it up in 2005, with a whole set of rules around road use, as well as road design, education and enforcement.

One example: the principle of “traffic homogeneity”. This means that vehicles on any given part of the road network should have the same mass and travel at the same, appropriate, speed.

The Dutch don’t expect bus drivers to share a lane with bikes. They don’t think bikes should have to chance their luck on arterial lanes with cars, either. And they don’t think quiet suburban streets should have the same speed limits as main roads.

So they’ve built, and keep building, dedicated bike lanes, on the roads, to keep the traffic separated. On quiet streets they have slow speeds for all. Everyone, including car drivers, gets the benefit.

Despite the Dutch data, the idea persists that “safer cars” is the key to road safety.

It’s not hard to see why. If you’re driving a large SUV or double-cab ute, you are safer than someone in the equivalent vehicle from the 1970s – a Holden Kingswood station wagon, say.

But that’s not the whole story. Your “safer” car produces more carbon emissions than the Kingswood, even though it has a more efficient engine, because it weighs more: it’s a reinforced steel box.

The Kingswood weighed 1.3 tonnes. A Ford Ranger, the most popular car today, weighs 2 tonnes. Some double-cab utes weigh 3.5 tonnes.

This is a recent development. Smaller sedans like the Toyota Corolla (1.3 tonnes) and the Suzuki Swift (less than a tonne) used to dominate the market. Now, two thirds of all our new cars are double-cab utes or large SUVs. And only a third are registered for business use, by the likes of tradies and farmers.

Next problem: Their size and weight means they take longer to stop and when they hit something, or someone, they do more damage. Cyclists and pedestrians hit by a large, modern car are twice as likely to die or be seriously hurt as those hit by a smaller car.

From 2014-2020, there were 3828 deaths and serious injuries on Auckland roads. An astonishing 2035 of them – 53 per cent – involved people not in a car. Mainly, that’s people hit by a car: motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists.

Nearly 60 years after Ralph Nader’s book, the meaning of “safe cars” has undergone an extraordinary change. In urban areas, it’s no longer primarily about the people in them. Instead, it’s about everyone else.

Not-so-fun fact: a Ford Ranger, at 5.4 metres in length, is almost as large as a World War II Sherman tank. If it’s your choice for a family car, remember to go slow and take extra care.


What makes driving safer? A Herald summer series.

Monday: More police enforcement
Tuesday: Better drivers or slower speeds?
Today: The impact of safer cars
Thursday: Safer open roads
Friday: Safer city streets

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