Driving in the Real World: What We Can’t See Out of Our Bigger Vehicles

Driving in the Real World: What We Can’t See Out of Our Bigger Vehicles

Jun 16, 2021

I’m writing this issue’s article the day after the Memorial Day holiday weekend, and it’s partly inspired by an incident that took place on Interstate 5 as I was heading back home to Seattle in my 335i E90 after a visit to Portland. Traffic was dense but flowing smoothly at around 65 mph, and I’d just passed an enormous black 4-door Ford F150 pickup on its left. The truck looked almost brand-new, and the driver was an older gentleman sporting significant white hair.

Suddenly I became aware of something not quite right. I looked to my right just in time to see his towering truck hovering alongside, drifting slowly but steadily more than a quarter of the way into my lane—with me still in it, just inches away. I quickly laid on my horn, whereupon he immediately jerked back into his lane and slowed way down, probably from both shock and shame.

From his vehicle’s body language before I passed him, I could tell that this wasn’t a reckless driver or someone in a hurry. I suspected two possibilities: He’d either drifted out of his lane because he’d fallen asleep at the wheel or was distracted; but, far more likely was that he hadn’t checked his mirrors or properly looked over his shoulder before he changed lanes, and I’d been precisely in his blind spot. (Plus, his truck either didn’t have lane-departure warning or lane-keeping assistance technology or he had them manually switched off—a good argument for having the tech and keeping them turned on.)

I’ll never truly know what happened, but the conundrum of poor visibility out of big vehicles has been on my mind for a while. Pedestrian deaths and serious injuries in the U.S. have been soaring in recent years, rising 46 percent over the last decade as opposed to a 5 percent increase from all other traffic deaths. Between 2009 and 2016, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calculated an 81 percent increase in U.S. single vehicle pedestrian fatalities involving sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). There are multiple reasons for this sharp rise, but I believe that this uptick in casualties and the rising sales of SUVs, pickup trucks, and crossovers is no accident, so to speak.

In 2015, SUVs began to outsell sedans, and in April 2018, Ford Motor Company announced it would stop manufacturing all but two of its passenger cars. In January 2021, IHS Markit reported that SUVs and crossovers accounted for at least half of all new vehicle sales in America for the first time, and sales of pickups are looking strong as well. People love these oversize vehicles for their room, horsepower, comfort, perceived sense of safety and protection and frankly, vanity. Ironically, however, in spite of drivers sitting up high and assuming they’re safer as a result, these larger vehicles are incredibly deadly for pretty much all other road users. The primary problem lies in the height of their hoods and grilles. If the front of a passenger car hits a person, the injuries primarily involve the legs. But the raised height of an SUV or truck means that the point of impact arrives in the torso or chest— where the body’s most crucial organs lie—and windshields hit heads. This trajectory almost guarantees death or serious injury, even at low speeds.

The shape of the grille makes a huge difference too. Most passenger cars’ front ends have angled slopes that essentially swoop up pedestrians, causing them to slide off hoods. But the current blocky, more aggressive, fashionable upright style of the front ends of many SUVs and pickups means that a person basically gets wrapped around the vehicle, according to Jingwen Hu, a crash-injury biomechanics specialist at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, as quoted in an Outside article titled “The SUVs and Trucks We Love Are Killing People” (May 4, 2020).

What’s even worse is how people think they can see better from their SUV or truck because they’re sitting up high, but that doesn’t compensate for all the new blind spots that have been created by their vehicle’s dimensions. (And just in case you haven’t noticed, these vehicles keep gaining weight all the time—adding to the literal impact they have.) Most of us are taught in driver’s ed that there are two or maybe three blind spots in your car, so you need to look over your shoulder before changing lanes, not just in your mirrors. But there are actually at least 11 blind spots in the average vehicle—often from overlooked places like window pillars, seat headrests and even your rearview mirror—essentially anything that blocks your view out the window.

Combine this with the thickness of these pillars, tinted glass and elevated height that obscures what’s next to your front or rear bumper, or even at the sides. Factor in the possibility of not accurately detecting—that is, not just seeing, but actually registering—pedestrians or bicyclists with our usual careless hasty glances across a huge distance from within our vehicle or even behind us, and you start to get an idea of how easy it is to miss something—or someone.

Children are especially vulnerable because of their very small size and quickness of movement. Every parent (and driver) should read the chapter entitled “Killer Cars” in Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, by Angie Schmitt, a national expert on sustainable transportation. In it, Schmitt describes the phenomenon of adults backing over their children in their driveways and accidentally crushing them to death. They are known as “bye-bye crashes” because it happens when kids dash out into the driveway to wave goodbye and they’re totally unaware that the driver cannot see them. As horrifying and unthinkable as it sounds, it happens to fifty children a week, according to KidsandCars.org, a nonprofit consumer safety group.

Before you rush to judge parents, it’s worth knowing just how huge these blind spots (or more appropriately, blind zones) are. In 2019, KidsandCars.org and an Indianapolis news station conducted an experiment to see how many children could sit directly in front of a 2011 Chevy Tahoe and be hidden from a woman of average height sitting behind the wheel. It turned out to be at least 17 children! What’s more, in a different test by KidsandCars, 62 children could fit as a group behind a Cadillac Escalade and all 62 would be totally invisible in both the rear window and rearview mirrors.

It is true that newer vehicles often have backup cameras and video displays as well as warning systems that beep when they detect objects (and in fact, what I described above is precisely why these cameras were federally mandated on all new vehicles in the U.S. in May 2018). But older vehicles often don’t have them, and the technology is not always foolproof; cameras can be obscured by dirt or snow, or children may move too quickly for the system to detect them in time, especially if a driver is backing up swiftly. Or drivers may forget to check the video display before reversing or not hear the warning beeps, especially if they’re older or distracted.

Don’t misinterpret my words—I’m not necessarily saying not to buy one of these bigger vehicles. What I am saying is that privilege comes with responsibility —and that to own an SUV, crossover, or pickup means that we must drive it much, much more carefully to protect others.

Mi Ae Lipe is a freelance editor and graphic designer in Seattle, Washington, who lives another life as a traffic safety advocate. She blogs on Driving in the Real World, Tweets daily driving news links and tips on Twitter at @DrivingReal, and writes a regular column on street driving for BMW CCA’s Roundel magazine. She is the past recipient of the NHTSA Award for Public Service for her work in driver training in Washington state, and she is also a member of the Washington State Transportation Commission’s Autonomous Vehicle Work Group’s Safety Subcommittee. miae@drivingintherealworld.com