Size does matter: As trucks and SUVs get bigger, more pedestrians are being killed

Some truck sizes rival tanks from World War 2

Trucks and SUVs are getting bigger and bigger, while pedestrian deaths continue to grow across the U.S.

“My second oldest son called me early in the morning. He said ‘Dad, Wes got hit by a car,’ and my first reaction was where is he? how is he doing? and he said ‘nah dad, he’s dead.’”

Wesley Stamps’ son, Wesley Jr., was killed in the early morning hours on Woodward Avenue in 2020, when a driver behind the wheel of a Chevy Traverse hit him before driving off. Stamps, recounted the story of his son on a sunny afternoon, looking out at the busy road in front of his barbershop in Southfield.

“I think about his laugh, I think about his conversations to me that we would have and I was always in the father mode,” Stamps said.

When police tracked down the driver, he was cleaning blood off his SUV, telling officers he thought he had hit a deer. He claimed he never even saw Wesley. He went to jail for 90 days and Wesley’s story became one of the tens of thousands just like it across the country each year.

“There’s times where it just comes out of nowhere and it’s that day,” Stamps said letting out a long exhale. “This will be one of them days.”

According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association in 2020, pedestrian deaths just like Wesley’s hit their highest level since 1989, rising to more than 6,500 people killed.

“There’s an increase in numbers. When we look at fatalities, a larger share of them are SUVs and pickups,” said Angie Schmitt.

Schmitt is the founder of 3mph Planning and Consulting, a Cleveland based firm focused on road and pedestrian issues. She’s also the author of the book “Right of Way” about a lack of pedestrian safety on US roads and has been working to make streets safer for pedestrians for nearly a decade.

“I think that there are a few different factors that play into that but the biggest one, the one that we can point to most clearly is that cars have gotten bigger,” she said.

Research going back more than two decades backs up Schmitt. For instance, the Serman M4 tank, one of the tanks the Allies used to win World War 2, comes in at around 19 feet long and 8 feet wide.

The Ford F-150, four door XLT crew cab is the most popular truck and trim on the road. It comes in around 20 feet long and nearly seven feet wide with the mirrors.

While that model is the most common, it’s comparable to the size of a Sherman, and that’s not even the largest option for would be drivers, which means trucks on the road can take up more space in the next lane than driving next to a tank.

Since 2000, Consumer Reports says the overall size of pick-up trucks has gone up 11 percent. The hood height of some of the most popular trucks on the roads today like Ford’s F-250, the Chevy Silverado and the Ram 1500 come in at 55 inches. At that height, they’re taller than the average 8 year old and tall enough to hit the average person in the head, neck and torso.

Related: Michigan traffic deaths hit 16-year high in 2021, injuries up 17%

All that extra size also means it’s harder to see things in front of or behind the trucks when the wheel. Consumer Reports also finding some trucks have front-end blind spots that can be nearly 15 feet in front of a truck and 50 feet long behind it.

“For whatever reason there’s been this enormous shift in the auto industry that I think in the 90s were more pro social and now I think are very anti-social,” Schmitt said,

It’s also about weight. Trucks today averaging around 5200 pounds -- that’s a jump of more than a half ton since 2000. And things get heavier as electric vehicles look to become our new normal.

On average electric vehicles are 10 percent heavier than gas powered cars. For instance, the new electric Hummer weighs in at a staggering 9,100 pounds or more than 4 and a half tons. All that weight can have deadly consequences. Researchers have found that for every 1,000 pounds a car puts on, a pedestrian is nearly 50 percent more likely to die if they’re hit and the more a truck weighs the longer it will take to stop.

Researchers have also found nearly none of this is all that necessary.

“It’s mainly a style thing a lot of cases,” Schmitt said. “A lot of pickup truck drivers, there are some pickup drivers that are obviously using them for hauling, for small businesses, but a majority don’t use them to haul anything significant in a year.”

Automakers selling a lifestyle. Making money all while evidence shows and experts say lives are being lost when they might not have to be.

Local 4 went to the Big 3; Ford, General Motors and Stellantis and asked for interviews with company CEOs to talk about why they’re putting profits ahead of people. None of them agreed to talk.

In a statement a Ford spokesperson said, “Safety is a top priority. Pedestrian safety is a complex issue requiring a holistic approach addressing all areas that contribute to this challenge, including infrastructure, driver distraction, pedestrian distraction and behavior, local roads speed limit enforcement and others. Automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection is standard across 96% of our light-duty car, truck and SUV lineup.”

A spokesperson for General Motors said, “At GM, customer safety is a priority regardless of the type of propulsion or mass of the vehicle. All GM products must comply with applicable federal safety standards in addition to GM’s strict safety requirements. Mass is a key design criteria for any vehicle GM develops, implementing the right tire, chassis, braking systems and other safety systems to ensure that the vehicle operates safely. In addition, GM deploys an extensive list of advanced safety technology features that have been shown to reduce rear-end striking, pedestrian, lane departure, lane change, and backing crashes based on research conducted in partnership with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.”

Finally, in a statement of its own Stellantis, which owns Ram, said, “We remind our customers that motor-vehicle operation requires proper care and attention -- a message that is codified in traffic law. Every Stellantis-brand vehicle sold in the U.S. meets or exceeds all applicable safety standards.”

But experts like Schmitt say those reminders, may not be enough.

“If drivers of large SUVs and pickups were being told ‘your vehicle presents specific risks and you need to drive it carefully’ and they were, you wouldn’t see this problem. Instead, people are driving very, very heavy vehicles almost like they’re racecars,” she said.

There have been pushes to force automakers to take responsibility for the size of their trucks. In Europe and Japan they’re required to have pedestrians in mind when they design, which means automakers already know how to make those cars. They just are not making them that way in the US.

The 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure law did move to change 5-star safety ratings to include pedestrian safety for larger vehicles, meaning for the first time automakers will have to assess how safe their trucks and SUVs are for pedestrians. The details on what that means for the industry and safety features are still being worked out. All of it coming down to the bottom line.

“Specifically, a lot of the American automakers were against the idea of doing 5-star safety rating for pedestrian safety and I think that’s because they’re so concentrated obviously on SUVs and pickup trucks that they thought it would be bad for business,” Schmitt said.

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About the Author:

Grant comes to Local 4 from Oklahoma City. He joins the news team as co-anchor of Local 4 News Today weekend mornings and is a general assignment reporter.