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Heavier cars make roads more dangerous

Illustration: GMC

The Chair of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Jennifer Homendy is the latest to warn about the increasingly large passenger cars on the roads.

The warning came at a press conference earlier this month, where the road safety chair expressed concern about the risk that heavy electric cars in particular pose if they collide with lighter vehicles.

“I’m concerned about the increased risk of severe injury and death for all road users from heavier curb weights and increasing size, power, and performance of vehicles on our roads, including electric vehicles,” Jennifer Homendy said.

It is especially the Americans’ preference for large cars that is a problem when it comes to electric cars. But European SUVs are also a cause for concern according to the road safety chair.

“A GMC Hummer EV weighs over 9,000 pounds, up from about 6,000 pounds. Its gross vehicle weight rating is a staggering 10,550 pounds. The battery pack alone weighs over 2,900 pounds — about the weight of a Honda Civic. The Ford F-150 Lightning is between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds heavier than the non-electric version. The Mustang Mach-E, Volvo XC40 EV, and RAV4 EV are all roughly 33% heavier. That has a significant impact on safety for all road users,” she says.

More dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians

The increased risk does not only apply to drivers—cyclists and pedestrians are also more vulnerable due to the heavier cars.

Last year, the Belgian equivalent to the NTSB, the Vias Institute, wrote that the risk of a cyclist or pedestrian dying in a collision with a car is greater the heavier the car.

Specifically, the risk of death is 50 percent higher if a cyclist or pedestrian is hit by a vehicle that weighs 1.8 tons instead of a vehicle that weighs 1.2 tons. The risk of serious injury is 10 percent higher if the road users in question are hit by a 200-horsepower vehicle compared to a 120-horsepower model.

The Vias Institute took data on accidents and compared it with the database of registered vehicles. The aim was to identify the vehicle characteristics that negatively impact road safety.

“On the one hand, vehicles are becoming increasingly safer because they are better equipped with active and passive safety systems. On the other hand, this positive development is partially counteracted by the increasing weight. Better protection of vulnerable road users is therefore one of the major challenges in the coming years,” the Vias Institute writes.

In 2017, the Institute of Transport Economics (TØI) also noted that heavier cars entail a greater risk for the other party in collisions than lighter cars. An increase in weight of 100 kg results in an increase in the risk of the other party dying in a collision by 6.6 percent on average.

“Some studies have attempted to calculate what the optimal weight of cars should be with regard to safety. They find that if we all drove around in mid-weight cars this would optimise chances for you and those you collide with. If cars keep growing heavier they will be getting more dangerous,” author of the study Alena Høye said to Science Norway in 2018.

Unintended consequences

Jennifer Homendy from the NTSB emphasizes that she supports the U.S. government’s commitment to phase out carbon emissions from transport by promoting electric vehicles.

She mentions that we have a climate crisis that needs to be addressed and refers to the fact that the U.S. transportation sector accounts for the largest portion of U.S. carbon emissions.

“But we have to be careful that we aren’t also creating unintended consequences: more death on our roads,” Jennifer Homendy says.