CNN Opinion: This cultural touchstone is killing far too many Americans

One of the vehicles involved in the crash seen at the scene.. Four people were killed and one person is in stable condition in a crash on the Cross Island Parkway in Queens. New Year's Day, at approximately 5:50 AM in a section of the parkway called "dead man's curve", two cars collided on the curve from the northbound Cross Island Parkway to the southbound Whitestone Expressway. Four people were pronounced dead at the scene. The fifth injured person is in stable condition. The cause of the crash is under investigation. (Photo by Kyle Mazza / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
The scene of a car crash on New Year’s Day in Queens, New York. Kyle Mazza/Sipa/AP

New Year’s Eve is a night of revelry, resolution-setting and, for too many Americans, a precursor to death on the road.

Jill Filipovic.
Jill Filipovic. Courtesy Jill Filipovic

And for the past decade, this dangerous day has kicked off another year of car-related deaths, the numbers of which are only growing. This should be the year we finally do something about it, and make our roads safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Like gun deaths, this epidemic of car-related deaths is a particularly American problem. Other countries have car deaths too, of course. But among developed and prosperous nations, America stands out in the fact that our proportion of vehicle deaths have gone up since 2010, while they’ve gone down in most of our peer nations, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). According to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, 2022 saw the largest number of pedestrians killed in America in more than 40 years.

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One culprit: enormous American cars.

Tall trucks and SUVs with blunt hoods are particularly dangerous — 45% more likely to kill pedestrians compared to smaller vehicles with sloped front ends, according to research from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Some of these trucks and SUVs are so tall that the top of the hood aims squarely at the upper torso and neck of the average American woman.

The risks become fairly obvious when you think it through: If you’re an average-sized adult hit by a sedan, you’re likely going to be hit in the legs or perhaps the pelvis. If you’re hit by a large truck or SUV, though, you’re hit in the torso, or even head and neck. And the driver may not even be able to see what they’ve hit.

Small children become invisible to the driver when they stand in front of these extra-large vehicles. Hundreds of American children have been killed off of public roadways by forward-moving vehicles, most of them trucks or SUVs — in other words, often run over by a driver who simply couldn’t see them beyond the hood.

And it turns out it’s often impossible to see a child over the hood of a large vehicle: NBC Washington had a woman sit in the driver’s seat of a large SUV and then sat children down in front it. They got to 10 kids in a row before she could see one.

These front blind zones have gotten larger as trucks and SUVs have, and safety legislation has been slow. While some legislators have proposed forward-facing cameras so drivers can better see what’s in front of them, more cameras doesn’t solve the core problem: the new norm of bloated, super-sized vehicles that the vast majority of drivers do not need.

Trucks and SUVs today are also significantly heavier than they used to be, with the average truck ballooning 34% in weight since 1990. That’s especially bad news for any pedestrians, motorcyclists or cyclists they hit. They’re also vastly more popular, accounting at multiple points in recent years for 80% of new car sales in the US, according to JD Power data cited in a comprehensive look at ever-larger vehicles in Slate.

These gargantuan vehicles sustain a vicious cycle: Other drivers are concerned for their safety sharing roads and highways with supersized behemoths, and so may in turn opt for bigger cars to protect themselves, even though these larger vehicles often cost more and are far costlier to gas up.

The longstanding perception that bigger cars are safer is bolstered by vehicle safety ratings which look at the safety of the drivers and passengers, but don’t take into account the dangers any given vehicle poses to pedestrians, something European regulators consider. And these larger, heavier cars are harder on roads, which we all pay to maintain.

At this point, the dangers of enormous vehicles, and especially those with tall front grilles, are well-established. And yet there has been precious little change.

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Growing vehicle size is a big part of the problem. But it’s far from the only problem. America has too-lax road rules and too few spaces where pedestrians are prioritized. American drivers are too often distracted by cell phones (European drivers, who are much more likely to operate manual-transmission cars, are as a result less likely to have a free hand to hold a cell phone). And enforcement of existing laws is weak: In many areas, officers reportedly have been told not to pull drivers over even for breaking the law.

There’s good reason for that: Several high-profile killings, particularlyof Black Americans, have occurred after traffic stops. And a general suspicion of wrongdoing shouldn’t get you in trouble with the law. But reckless drivers still need to be stopped.

One way to do that is with greater camera enforcement. But that also requires actually penalizing those who drive with fake or expired license plates. And it requires actually pulling dangerous drivers who rack up violations off of the road — removing their drivers’ licenses permanently, and sometimes imposing criminal penalties.

In New York, for example, it wasn’t until a 14-year-old girl was killed by a driver whose license had been suspended seven times that the law changed. Now, the state gives you five suspended licenses before you’re charged with a felony — still a ridiculously, offensively high number. In Washington, DC, a woman with five DUI convictions and more than 40 outstanding traffic tickets still somehow had a valid driver’s license, and caused a fiery crash that killed three people as she sped away after being pulled over yet again.

If your license has been suspended several times, or if you’ve been convicted of multiple DUIs, or if you have double-digit numbers of speeding tickets in your name, or if you’ve been involved in multiple crashes that were your fault, you should lose the privilege to drive entirely. And if you have a record of this kind of reckless or dangerous driving and then you hit and injure or kill someone, you should pay an especially steep price.

Yet over and over and over again, people with long records of dangerous driving are allowed back on the road; dangerous drivers often aren’t even punished when they eventually maim or kill someone, or see penalties that amount to little more than a slap on the wrist. It is exceptionally rare for a driver, even one with a history of dangerous driving, to be charged with murder when they kill someone on the road. Killing someone with a car is, in the United States, too often essentially a free pass.

Yes, it is a huge inconvenience to be unable to drive in a country as car-dependent as the US. It makes sense to end silly rules that suspend licenses for things like failing to pay parking tickets, behavior that may be more about poverty than dangerousness.

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But suspending or entirely revoking licenses, and then enforcing those suspensions and revocations, is entirely necessary when drivers have a history of potentially lethal behavior — of DUIs, speeding tickets and at-fault accidents. Losing the right to drive may be inconvenient for them and cost them financially. But driving is not a human right, and these penalties could keep the rest of us safer and make potentially dangerous drivers think twice before they speed off or drive under the influence.

In the US, a nation with an incredibly shocking gun death epidemic, cars kill nearly as many people. Many, many of these deaths are preventable. There is a long history of instituting vehicle safety rules to make passengers safer — seatbelts, airbags and on and on. It is well past time we considered the safety of people outside of the vehicle, and took common-sense steps to protect their lives, too.

This story originally appeared in CNN January 4, 2024 edition

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