Wollongong / NSW
For micromobility to flourish, people need to feel safe on our roads. Over the past couple of years, I have been alarmed and dismayed to see a rapid acceleration in the number of ‘hyper macho pickup trucks’ being imported from the USA and appearing on our streets.
In the USA thousands more cyclists and pedestrians are being killed and seriously injured every year than was the case a decade ago.
In 2018 alone, over 6,283 pedestrians and 850 cyclists were killed.
Why is this happening?
During this period there has been a dramatic rise in the sale of pickup trucks. They now account for a staggering 70% of private vehicle sales in America. Some major American vehicle brands no longer include a single conventional car in their model range.
Of course, this could just be a coincidence and there might not be a direct causal link between the rise of pickup truck sales and the increasing deaths of ‘vulnerable road users’. I acknowledge that this is a controversial expression in mobility circles.
But if you have bearing down upon you a 1.6 metre high vertical grille, backed by 3,000 kg of truck, in which the driver has poor close range forward visibility, then you’re vulnerable! Academic studies like this one suggest that it’s not just coincidence and conclude that, ‘Vehicle type strongly influences risk of severe injury and death to pedestrian. This may be due in part to the front end design of the vehicle. Hence vehicle front end design, especially for light truck vehicles, should be considered in future motor vehicle safety standards.’
At this point I’d like to emphasise, that I’m not against commercial vehicles. All sorts of tradies, farmers and other groups use utes or pickup trucks to carry large and heavy loads. In this setting they’re a great productivity tool.
In fact, I even own a commercial vehicle myself, which I’ve used for years to carry building materials, kitchens, doors, furniture and a host of other large items needed to renovate properties. Many times I’ve loaded this vehicle to its maximum capacity and then towed a trailer load behind it.
Clearly, my ute would be kinder to the environment if it were electric and not petrol. Right now there’s no electric ute option available on the market. But that change is coming soon enough, despite the best delaying efforts of Australian politicians evidenced by breathtakingly short sighted electioneering comments such as, “We are going to stand by our tradies! And we are going to save their utes!”
Yes, these words were really spoken by an Australian Federal Government Minister during the 2019 federal election campaign, with the Prime Minister smiling approvingly in the background.
And for tradies who genuinely need larger capacity, a vehicle such as the Volkswagen Crafter pictured below offers all of the passenger, cargo and working capacity of the large USA pickup trucks, but with a motor that’s half the size, vastly better forward visibility and a much lower more rounded, pedestrian friendly front impact area. Oh, and it’s about $50,000 cheaper.
But of course, it’s slower, quieter, plainer looking, more utilitarian and nowhere near as macho. Clearly, these are major drawbacks in the eyes of current pickup truck buyers.
It’s a problem when vehicles of any category, become weaponised.
And the ultimate example of this is the ever bigger, meaner, more macho American pickup trucks.
Not only cyclists but even other motorists feel vulnerable when they can barely see up to the pickup truck’s door handles from their Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, which weighs less than half as much. They feel compelled to buy a larger, higher, heavier vehicle to protect themselves and their family in this motor vehicle arms race. The irony is that for the vast majority of their existence, most of these pickup trucks are never used to carry anything heavier than the weekly grocery shopping, or taking the kids to school.
Pickup truck designers admit that it’s all about creating a macho image, often with military overtones, with ever higher, meaner looking grilles. You can even buy after market accessories to give your vehicle a mean frown.
In fact, a quick Google search will uncover a huge industry in selling accessories and advice such as this example of ‘How to Make Your Truck Look Aggressive and Badass in 15 Steps.’
Then there’s the whole ‘get out of my way’, ‘I own the road’, ‘sense of entitlement’ that goes with these vehicles. You can see this in the advertising and other adornment of these vehicles.
As this article details.
Once you’ve got your pickup truck looking as mean as possible, then you can modify the exhaust so that you can play the fun game of ‘Rollin’ Coal’. Drive up alongside any pedestrian or cyclist that you don’t like the look of, slow right down then plant your foot on the accelerator and bury them in a dark cloud of thick exhaust fumes. You won’t have any pesky legal hassles compared to if you actually run them over, but hey – you can sure put them back in their place!
This is another growing industry, complete with a wide range of offensive bumper stickers for sale via Amazon, Etsy and most other online marketplaces of your choice.
There are multiple negative consequences of so many of these of massive vehicles being used for solely or mainly for regular household activities. There’s pressure to make shopping centre carparks larger to fit them. They stick out more from kerbside parking spaces and have larger doors, making it even more dangerous for cyclists to pass them and not get ‘doored’.
And of course they take more resources to manufacture, fuel, repair and ultimately, recycle.
So what should we do about all of this?
Australia doesn’t have to blindly follow every policy decision of the USA.
We’ve proved this before. For example, as a nation, America finds it acceptable for almost 40,000 people to be killed each year through gun violence, whereas Australia chose to enact tougher gun laws. As a result ‘only’ about 200 people are killed each year. That’s 200 times lower than the USA and still over 13 times lower per capita, after adjusting for population.
It should be the same with pickup trucks. America’s road toll had dropped to the low 30,000’s a decade ago but has trended back up to over 40,000 deaths per year today.
If America wants to kill over 40,000 people per year, injure multitudes more, turn their roads into a war zone and their car parks into massive asphalt deserts, then that’s their choice as a society and sovereign nation. But we can go down a different road.
I haven’t visited Europe or the UK recently, nor has virtually anyone else in our Covid-19 world, but in previous trips I don’t think I saw a single USA make pickup truck.
Through a combination of narrower lanes, smaller parking spaces, much more highly taxed petrol, vehicle taxes based on engine capacity, tougher pollution and safety laws, the Europeans have effectively banned giant American pickup trucks.
Is it by coincidence that per capita, European nations also have both much lower road tolls than Australia and much higher rates of micromobility use?
We do have a choice here as a society. We don’t have to blindly accept that bigger is better and that whatever the USA does is right. Instead of following the deadly, divisive American road, why don’t we become smarter like the Europeans?
If micromobility is going to flourish, we need to create a nurturing environment, and reducing risk from large vehicles is a key part of this process.