The fatality rate of car accidents has been a topic of discussion over the last century, ever since Henry Ford made the automobile widely available in the 1920s, but there is one aspect of car accidents which doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, and that is crash compatibility. Soon after automobiles were commonplace in America, people experienced traffic jams for the first time, as well as traffic accidents and, of course, fatalities caused by these accidents. This caused demands to make vehicle safety regulations on the state level which were met with the introduction of speed limits, traffic lights, and stop signs. For over a century now, safety regulations such as the ones listed have been some of the main focuses of keeping drivers safe and preventing fatalities on roadways. These safety regulations have worked well and are without a doubt essential but so far, none of them have really addressed this issue of crash compatibility between vehicles.
When looking into the relationship between vehicle size/weight and the fatality rate of car accidents, it is essential to understand the deeper meaning behind this phrase “crash compatibility,” not only on a scientific level but on a social level as well. A good place to start to better understand crash compatibility, is with a basic description of what it even means in the first place. According to the authors of the scientific paper titled, 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.” So 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. And the main factor that causes vehicles to have the same death ratio is vehicle mass, or more specifically, vehicle size and weight. 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 are easily preventable if more attention was brought to the crash incompatibilities between current vehicles on the road.
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 is in fact not. The collaboration of vehicle specialists attempted to address the issue by forming separate groups to identify the 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. The part of these energy absorbing structures that needed changing was their placement in certain vehicles. Bigger vehicles tended to be higher off the ground than smaller ones, leading to a mismatch in structures. 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 dedicated roadways are constructed for different sizes of vehicles. And 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. And that isn’t all, 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 in turn 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.
Baker, B., Nolan, J., O’Neill, B., & Genetos, A. (2007, May 22). Crash compatibility between cars and light trucks: Benefits of lowering front-end energy-absorbing structure in SUVs and pickups. Retrieved September 28, 2020.
The Age of the Automobile. (n.d.). Retrieved October 12, 2020.
Bae, H., Lim, J., & Park, K. (n.d.). VEHICLE COMPATIBILITY IN CAR -TO-CAR FRONTAL OFFSET CRASH [PDF]. Korea: Hyundai Motor Company.
Overly, S. (2019, April 17). Americans have fallen in love with little big cars. Retrieved October 12, 2020.