Saving Lives, One Road At A Time
Forcing all cars on the road to be the same size would greatly increase the survival rate of car-to-car collisions. While driving a Toyota Prius, which would be the most rational choice, a head on collision with a two and a half ton pickup truck or a vehicle almost half the weight and size? Any normal person wouldn’t want either scenario to occur, but most people would make the logical choice of a collision with a car around equal size and weight to their own. This is known to be the better choice based simply on a high school level understanding of physics that drivers would have a lot better chances of surviving a crash with a small car compared to a big one. This reasoning alone makes it clear that forcing all cars on the road to be the same size will greatly decrease the fatality rate of accidents.
I know that this is a very bold statement that would require a great explanation as well as an ample amount of data to be able to back it up. So that is exactly what will be delivered in this paper. To start things off, we need to get a better understanding of the reasoning behind such an audacious claim. This means it is necessary for us to first understand its base components. When German inventor Karl Benz patented his invention of the first ever automobile back in 1886, he most likely never even entertained the idea of car-to-car collisions. Now, over one-hundred years later, according to the CDC, car accidents are the leading cause of death for children and young people 5 to 29 years of age. This statistic is an eye-opener for most people, yet we will all continue to drive our cars, not because we want to, but because we have to as they have become the main form of transportation almost everywhere in the world. With that, it might do good to know exactly why car accidents are so deadly. The main underlying cause is the disparity in the size of vehicles, but that is something which can be addressed.
To help make it so anyone can understand the idea of the disparity in vehicle size causing car accidents to be deadly, I will explain it in the simplest way possible. Heavy objects moving at the same speed as lighter objects have more energy. In terms of vehicles, this means that a large vehicle that is heavy, moving at the same speed as a smaller vehicle that is lighter, will exert more energy, or crushing force, on the smaller vehicle in the occurrence of a car-to-car collision. More crushing force being exerted on the smaller vehicle of the accident means less force being exerted on the larger vehicle granting the driver of the larger vehicle more protection, but granting the driver of the smaller vehicle greater chances for injury or even death.
Going down the chain, we can look at what causes such a disparity in the sizes of vehicles on the roadways in the first place. Just having paid attention to the variety of cars on the road in recent times, may make this seem like a pretty obvious one but it is mostly caused by an increase in the popularity of larger cars, specifically in the United States. This growth in the popularity of larger vehicles, in the case of the United States, is due to a multitude of reasons. One of the reasons can be traced all the way back to the fact that America is not as old as many other countries. In his article titled “Why Americans buy bigger cars than the rest of the world,” author Sanjay Salomon cites a quote from car critic and managing editor for BoldRide, George Kennedy, which states, “In Europe and other areas there are very old infrastructure and small streets in five to seven-hundred-year-old cities… [making it] difficult for larger vehicles to get around.” Another outcome of being a younger country than most, is that America was founded right around the time of the industrial revolution causing there to be a need for larger and more extensive roadways. Because the roadways in America are much larger and expansive than other countries, they lend themselves to larger vehicles. People who have ever been on a long road trip can agree that they are a lot more enjoyable in a large vehicle with plenty of interior space than a cramped sedan with no leg room. The next reason for larger vehicles being popular has to do with the fact that gas prices are relatively cheap in the US compared to most other countries. This means Americans can afford to own gas guzzling SUVs and trucks without spending all of their money on gasoline. Another reason that large vehicles are popular is that they are safer, but as previously explained, they are only safer for the driver of the vehicle and more dangerous to the driver of smaller vehicles.
So looking back at this causal chain again, growth in popularity of large vehicles caused a greater disparity in vehicle sizes on roadways which, inturn, caused greater fatality rates of car-to-car collisions. There is one very important link missing from this chain that is essentially the main supporting point for my thesis. The missing link lies between the disparity in vehicle sizes and the fatality rates of accidents, and it is known as the crash compatibility of vehicles on roadways. That means the complete version of this chain is something along the lines of: growth in popularity of large vehicles caused a greater disparity in vehicle sizes on roadways causing poor crash compatibility which, inturn, causes greater fatality rates of car-to-car collisions. Defined by the authors of the scientific paper, VEHICLE COMPATIBILITY IN CAR -TO-CAR FRONTAL OFFSET CRASH, “Vehicle [crash] compatibility is defined as the ability of a car to protect both its own occupants and partner car’s occupants.” Vehicle crash compatibility in itself has a couple factors that go into it but, as one can guess from the causal chain, the main factor as defined by the NHTSA, is vehicle mass. In other words, vehicle size is the main factor of crash compatibility, meaning the closer a vehicle is in size to the other vehicle in an accident, the better compatibility they will have. This then implies pretty much my whole thesis, that different sized vehicles have poor crash compatibility which causes car-to-car collisions to be more fatal. This is not just some random claim with nothing to back it up either, there have been tests upon tests and studies upon studies that have proven this to be true. One such example of a statistic that proves this point the best comes from a crash accident report from FARS, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, that highlights the death ratios of accidents between cars and multiple different classes of vehicles. According to their report, in the occurrence of a van to side car collision, the driver’s death ratio is about 1 to 23. An immediate reaction might be something along the lines of, “oh well that’s to be expected of a frontal to side collision between vehicles and has nothing to do with the disparity in vehicle sizes.” That thinking is completely wrong as the van to side car death ratio of 1 to 23 is nearly 4 times the car to side car death ratio of only 1 to 6. The statistic is alarming enough to make me even nervous now when seeing a large van or truck driving near me on the road. And to think, all of this unnecessary unease as well as unnecessary fatalities on the roadways can be traced back to something seeming as harmless as bigger vehicles gaining popularity.
Now to gain an even deeper understanding of all this information, it is essential to understand the deeper meaning behind the phrase “crash compatibility,” not only on a scientific level but on a social level as well. To start, if two vehicles in a car-to-car crash accident have the same death ratio as well as lower numbers of fatalities, then the compatibility of these two vehicles is said to be good. Data collected from FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System), shows the ratio of fatalities to different sizes of vehicles in car-to-car collisions. When in an accident between regular cars and trucks, minivans, SUVs, and full-sized vans, cars have always at least double the deaths up to even a 6 to 1 ratio when in collisions with full-sized vans. These deaths can easily be prevented if more attention is brought to the crash incompatibilities between current vehicles on the road. To be fair, with how much data and evidence there is out there from studies already conducted on the subject, I am not the first to believe that current crash incompatibilities are a problem. In Fact there have already been attempts at addressing and fixing this issue.
In the article titled, “Crash compatibility between cars and light trucks: Benefits of lowering front-end energy-absorbing structure in SUVs and pickups,” the author Bryan Baker claims, “In response to growing concerns about incompatibilities in collisions between cars and light trucks (i.e., pickups and SUVs), representatives from automobile manufacturers, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and other international vehicle safety organizations agreed in 2003 to develop collaborative recommendations to improve vehicle crash compatibility.” This sounds like it’s a step in the right direction like it’s some progress towards addressing the issue of crash compatibility, but it’s not. The collaboration of vehicle specialists formed groups to identify vehicle design features that cause the crash incompatibilities between small and large vehicles. One of the tests conducted by IIHS, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Transport Research Laboratory in the United Kingdom demonstrated that the energy absorbing structures of vehicles seemed to be the leading design feature that needed changing to make cars more crash compatible. Through tests of head-on collisions between vehicles with mismatched energy-absorbing structures it was shown that this resulted in more override and underride. This means that the larger vehicle with a higher energy-absorbing structure would go right over the structure of a smaller car causing the passenger compartment to be crushed, resulting in fatalities. This is where I believe they went wrong. It was pretty much unanimously decided that the only issue with crash compatibility was the mismatch between energy-absorbing structures. This assumption was made after only testing frontal collisions between small and large vehicles meaning accidents from the side of the vehicle are still just as deadly even after structure changes. This is once again due to simply the difference in size and weight of different types of vehicles.
With all that said, true full crash compatibility on roadways can never be achieved unless all cars on the road are forced to be the same size. And recent trends show that this shouldn’t be a back-burner task either, this is something that needs attention brought to it as soon as possible. Big cars are starting to become the new big thing with more people buying and owning SUVs/trucks than ever before. According to Steven Overly at the Washington Post, in his article about the recent rise in popularity of SUVs in the US, titled “Americans have fallen in love with little big cars,” “…sales of crossovers and SUVs took off at a quicker pace than for cars. Then in the last two years, Americans continued to buy more of every category of light trucks while car purchases declined.” This undeniable growth in the popularity of bigger cars puts drivers of small cars in danger by creating a greater chance of getting in an accident with a vehicle larger than their own, which as I have explained before, leads to more fatalities. To add to the urgency of the situation, larger vehicles tend to carry a heftier price than others which means more money for automakers which inturn makes them the new big focus of most car brands. In the same article from The Washington Post, Overly explains how big automobile companies such as Ford and GM are starting to even go as far as planning to shift their car production abroad to focus more on their line of SUVs and trucks here in the US.
Forcing all cars on roadways to be of the same size would be a very difficult task. Infact, it wouldn’t be crazy to think that this would even be impossible. Nonetheless, forcing cars on the road to be the same size is still the backbone of my thesis and by the end of this, I will prove that it is not only necessary, but also achievable. So, up to this point the evidence makes it clear that the size of two vehicles involved in a car-to-car collision is one of the driving factors that make accidents so fatal. This makes it very clear that something needs to be done about the disparity of car sizes on roadways. Otherwise people will keep dying from something that is known and can be prevented. Going back to the challenge of forcing all cars to be the same size, the simplest and most effective solution would be to construct dedicated roadways for different classes of vehicles. This is a solution that will satisfy most people. Everyone will still have the freedom to choose whether they drive a big or small car, slow or fast one, pretty much whatever kind of car they want with the only downside being they would have to drive on certain designated roadways for their vehicle type. But, this isn’t even really a downside as I’m sure most people would agree that having a much lower chance of dying while driving but having to drive on specific roads isn’t that bad of a deal at all.
I originally said that this would be the simplest solution to the problem of forcing all cars to be the same size but that doesn’t actually mean that this task would be simple, it’s just the simplest out of the very limited options. Since it won’t be very easy and is pretty controversial, there is without a doubt plenty of arguments against this idea. Out of all the possible arguments, the one that most likely would be the top argument is that the cost of constructing multiple roadways for different sized vehicles is extremely high. This argument is an unsurprisingly very good one. To get an idea of how much it would actually cost we can take a look at an existing idea of truck only highway lanes. This is essentially the exact thing that I want to achieve but for more classes of cars than just trucks. In the article titled, “Issues in The Financing of Truck-Only Lanes,” authors David Forkenbrock and Jim March reference Robert Poole and Peter Samuel who “estimate that, in general, constructing a truck-only facility alongside an existing rural interstate would cost approximately $2.5 million per lane-mile (about $10 million per route-mile for two lanes in each direction), plus land acquisition costs, if applicable.” Currently, the United States Interstate Highway System is 46,876 miles long. This means that just for truck only highway lanes alone, it would cost a staggering $468 billion dollars to create. And for my thesis to work there would need to be at least two other roadways alongside the current roads meaning that number would be doubled.
So, as previously stated, the argument that constructing dedicated roadways would be too expensive is a valid one, but there is a reason why I still stand firm on the idea. That is that human lives are priceless and should be treated as such. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “There were 33,654 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2018 in which 36,560 deaths occurred.” Some, if not a majority of these deaths could have been prevented if dedicated roadways were constructed. And as stated by the CDC, “Traffic crash deaths resulted in $55 billion in medical and work loss costs in addition to the immeasurable burden on the victims’ families and friends in 2018.” So if dedicated roadways were actually constructed and put into use, the lives that these new roadways save will in turn reduce that $55 billion. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the reduction in fatal car accidents due to dedicated roadways cut the $55 billion in half, bringing the total cost resulting from traffic crash deaths down to $27.5 billion. This means that, each year, the United States would save on average $27.5 billion. With this much money being saved every year, constructing dedicated roadways for different classes of cars can not only be seen as life saving but it also can be seen as a long term investment. Based on the estimated cost of truck only lanes, the cost of dedicated roadways can be estimated to be around $900 billion dollars. That means that it would only take around 32 years for the cost of the roadways to be balanced out by the yearly savings due to less fatal car accidents. Some may think that 32 years sounds like a long time, but compared to the age of the United States, it is not that crazy of a number. The $27.5 billion in savings doesn’t just end when the cost of the roadways is balanced out either, the United States will continue to save the money every year which is the long term investment part of this idea.
Money aside, constructing dedicated roadways for different classes of vehicles will save lives, thousands of lives in fact. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims, “A total of 4,136 people died in large truck crashes in 2018.” Nearly 70% of those deaths were occupants of cars while only 16% were deaths of the large truck drivers. These are thousands of deaths from crashes between only two of the different vehicle classes that could have been avoided if they weren’t driving on the same roadways. Bringing it back to the argument of being too expensive, yes, it is expensive but that money will eventually come back around and even profit will be made all while saving the lives of drivers. That is why forcing all cars on roadways to be of the same size is not only achievable, but also a necessary step towards reducing the fatality rate of accidents.
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Forkenbrock, D. J., & March, J. (2005, September). Issues in The Financing of Truck-Only Lanes.
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