After many years of increasing safety on our roads, we are backsliding. Australian road deaths are up 10% in 2016 compared to last year. (In Victoria, the toll is up 17%.) What has changed? The spread of airbags, ABS brakes and electronic stability control should have made us safer.
The likely culprit is the changing nature of vehicles on the road.
Once upon a time, a person could see over the top of traffic. Cars came up to your shoulder — they were not a visual obstacle. Not now. The steady rise of the SUV is well documented. SUVs will soon be Australia’s most popular type of car. They have risen from 18% of the vehicle market in 2005 to 37% in 2016.
The decline of OPEC and the falling global oil price has removed the only factor keeping small cars in vogue. As a result, vehicles have puffed up like a pack of microwave popcorn.
And the most startling of transformations might be in the humble ute. Utes are no longer based on passenger vehicles. Instead they are more like SUVs — big ones. They have come to resemble the American “pick-up truck”.
The 2007 Holden Ute was 1.5 metres high and weighed 1620kg. One of 2016’s top-selling utes, the Ford Ranger, is up to 1.85 metres high and weighs up to 2202kg.
The Ranger is an impressive specimen to rest your eye on. It is not a wimpy little vehicle.
Bigger vehicles afford their occupants more protection in a crash. But it is probably not terrific to be hit by one if you are attempting to make progress by foot, bicycle, or in a smaller car. Anyone hit by a bigger, heavier car has more force transferred into them for a given speed of impact.
An important note on ANCAP ratings is that they don’t tell you if a small car is as safe as a large car. Each vehicle is rated against others in its own category. “It is not appropriate to compare ANCAP safety ratings across vehicle categories,” the assessment program advises.
Given that, you’d be mad to risk hitting a Ford Ranger in a Ford Fiesta. Of course people buy the Ranger. It’s “safer.” For them, at least.
Effects on people who are not the occupants of the car in question are all but ignored in the discourse on Australian vehicle safety. Pedestrian deaths rose 8% in 2015. ANCAP takes pedestrian safety into account, but then hands out five-star ratings to vehicles, like the Toyota Landcruiser, which has a pedestrian safety rating of “Marginal” — the lowest category.
This is a classic type of externality — the arms race. In an accretion of individually rational choices, we make the world more dangerous for all of us. There is a potential role for someone to step in — perhaps a state or federal government. This is especially so now — fuel efficiency is rising, and the deterrent effect of fuel excise on the purchase of a large car is tumbling. (Those Ford Rangers can use as little as 7L/100km.)
Making such a law might tread on a few toes, but it would be an enlightened choice. Australia has already been Americanised in many ways — TV, language and now cars. It would be a shame to add to that list a blunt unwillingness to make laws about dangerous products.
*This piece originally indicated ANCAP ratings did not take pedestrian safety into account, and has been corrected