As pandemic-curtailed traffic returns to greater normality, motorists, bikers, and pedestrians may need to pay increased attention to two novel means of transportation taking to the roads: monster-sized SUVs and zippy high-tech scooters.
Even as officials in the nation’s capital approved, as expected, new rules on e-scooters, Andrew Hawkins, a reviewer at the Verge news and information site, deserves credit for raising safety concerns about a rising slice of the U.S. auto market: the over-sized Sport Utility Vehicle.
In case you missed it, SUVs have become the nation’s vehicular obsession, particularly in the kid-filled suburbs, with experts estimating they made up a large part — 47.4% — of auto sales in 2019.
Hawkins reported that he was eager to review the 2021 Cadillac Escalade, because, as the flagship SUV of a renowned luxury vehicle line, it promised to be the epitome of all things bigger and better in this vehicle class. This includes the promotion of what the auto maker says will be its eventual installation of an array of high-tech bells and whistles, including semi-autonomous driving, to increase road safety. But as he also found:
“I got one of the most stressful driving experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t consider myself a timid driver but being behind the wheel of this 6,000-lb behemoth gave me high-grade, flop-sweat-inducing anxiety. I’ve never ridden on the back of an elephant before but driving the 2021 Escalade may be as close as I’ll get. Words cannot describe how gargantuan the new Escalade is, so numbers will have to suffice. The 2021 Escalade is nearly 18 feet long bumper to bumper, and almost six-and-a-half feet tall. This represents a growth spurt from the previous model year, including an additional four inches to the wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels), 2.6 inches to the overall length, and 2.4 inches taller in terms of overall height. Or, as Cadillac’s own marketing materials boast, ‘the largest and longest Escalade ever.’”
Living large has its risks
There are big risks with sitting high and large in a mammoth luxury SUV, Hawkins reported:
“Sitting in the driver’s seat, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the outside world — mostly because you can’t see a lot of it. The grille was like a sheer cliffside, obstructing my view several feet out in front of the wheels. An entire kindergarten class could be lined up in front of this vehicle and I wouldn’t see them. This is not hyperbole. Last year, a local television station measured the front blind zones of many popular vehicles, from family sedans and minivans to large SUVs and full-size pickup trucks. The Escalade had the largest front blind spot of 10 feet, two inches, with the driver sitting in a natural, relaxed position. It took 13 children seated in a line in front of the Escalade before the driver could see the tops of their heads.”
The writer took to social media to Tweet out a picture that tells a ten thousand words about his safety concerns with his 3-year-old and those motoring along in a vehicle that is the street equivalent of a great white whale (see above). Hawkins also made clear that he is not singling out Caddies for his concern with excessive size and road risks, reporting:
“I don’t mean to pick on Cadillac here, because this is a problem that is endemic to the entire auto industry. This trend in colossal vehicle sizes — particularly the very tall, square front end found on most large SUVs and trucks — is testing the limitations of our infrastructure. While driving the Escalade, I felt as if I could barely stay in my own lane … There is a clear correlation between vehicle design and the recent spike in pedestrian deaths. While the people driving SUVs are slightly safer (1.6% decrease in SUV occupant deaths in 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), the number of pedestrians killed by those drivers has skyrocketed by 81% in the last decade, according to a report released last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That’s mostly because of the way SUVs are designed: larger bodies and higher carriages mean pedestrians are more likely to suffer deadly blows to the head and torso. Higher clearances mean victims are more likely to get trapped underneath a speeding SUV instead of pushed onto the hood or off to the side. Speed is also a factor because SUVs have more horsepower than a typical sedan. A recent investigation by USA Today and the Detroit Free Press found that the growing popularity of SUVs accounts for the alarming rise in pedestrian deaths.”
D.C. Council approves new scooter regulations
In the District of Columbia, members of the City Council have expressed concern about not only increasing pedestrian deaths, but also rising numbers of wrecks involving bikes and scooters. Officials also are trying to slash at area traffic gridlock — especially as more commuters may take to the roads in cars due to infection fears and pandemic-related reductions in services by bus and train services.
As the Washington Post reported:
“The D.C. Council gave final approval [on Oct. 20] to legislation further regulating electric-scooter services in the nation’s capital. The legislation, which passed unanimously, establishes new rules for scooter use in the city, chief among them a requirement that the companies that operate the services provide a way for the devices to be locked to racks or poles. The legislation allows electric scooter and bicycle operations to grow over the next few years to a maximum of 20,000 devices by Oct. 1, 2023. Today, seven companies are allowed to operate just under 7,000 scooters combined; about 4,000 e-bikes are permitted. The regulations also set benchmarks to ensure the devices are available in all wards of the city and require more signage warning users about riding scooters on sidewalks … ‘Overall, this bill is a great balance of a need for more regulation to make scooters and other shared mobility devices safe and easily available,’ council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said earlier this month as he voted to advance the bill for a final vote.”
The newspaper also reported this key context to the council action:
“Motorized scooters started appearing in the District in … 2018. They quickly became a popular option for getting around, with tourists using them to see the sights, commuters turning to them out of frustration with the region’s troubled transit system, and residents finding them perfect for short-distance trips. They also became controversial. Unprepared for the massive growth of the services, the city faced public criticism as abandoned scooters began littering sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces. Pedestrians continue to complain that they fear for their safety as scooters whiz by on narrow and crowded sidewalks. People who use wheelchairs complain about being unable to navigate around scooters left dumped in the middle of sidewalks.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by auto, truck, and motorcycle wrecks. The nation had made steady progress on street and highway safety over decades, only to see the gains reverse in recent years and plateau at concerning heights.
This is not good. As a parent, I get why larger vehicles may have an appeal for hauling around the army of neighborhood kids, their growing piles of gear, as well as groceries and necessities. But even the broad boulevards of comfortable suburbs were never meant to accommodate vehicles larger than the trendy tiny houses hurtling along. It also is disconcerting to read how bigger SUVs and passenger trucks also get equipped with souped up tech on steroids, so riders can be online, get riveted by TV shows and recordings, or bust eardrums with pounding musical beats.
Research shows that distraction can be deadly for drivers, passengers, bikers, and pedestrians. Please don’t text and keep those two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road. Raucous chatter and blaring music can diminish crucial motorist response times. And sleepiness and intoxicants of all kinds — including prescription medications, illicit drugs, marijuana, and alcohol — must be nixed for those who get behind the wheel, right?
If you’re going to race along in the full house vehicle, play with a mental full deck and save and protect your life and the lives of everyone around you. It’s great to be surrounded by your posse, but the lifelong horror may be yours alone (or more likely shared with everyone you love) if tragedy occurs.