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How suburban tanks are turning American roads into killzones – and driving fears in Britain

Tesla Cybertruck
Tesla’s much-feted first attempt at a pickup truck officially launched last week in the US - Richard Vogel/AP

It’s big, boxy, bulletproof and, Elon Musk would argue, beautiful. Yet Tesla’s new Cybertruck is unlikely to be seen cruising down British or European roads anytime soon.

Tesla’s much-feted first attempt at a pickup truck officially launched last week in the US.

The car, which will cost upwards of $60,990 (£48,416), aims to break the design mould of American pickup trucks with its angular, minimalist design. However, it will still meet one stereotype – it is big and heavy.

In fact, the heaviest version will weigh as much as 4.5 tonnes, with three motors and a large battery.

The cybertruck’s immense weight, as well as its unique design, mean it is unlikely to appear on European roads for now. The heaviest model will breach the 3.5 tonne weight limit for drivers with a standard car licence, meaning motorists will need a specialist licence to get behind the wheel. The truck’s angular design is also unlikely to meet European safety standards, which require softer edges on vehicles to limit injuries.

Mr Musk’s pet project is an attempt to tap into one of the biggest car markets in the world – the US truck.

Musk
The Tesla Cybertruck, which will cost upwards of $60,990 (£48,416), aims to break the design mould of American pickup trucks - Frederic J. Brown/AFP

However, there are concerns that the American obsession with large, off-road vehicles is coming at a cost. Campaigners say larger, heavier vehicles are linked to more deaths, particularly in the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) market.

Figures released in the summer show that the US reached a grim milestone last year – the highest number of pedestrian deaths since 1981. At least 7,508 people were killed walking on or near America’s roads.

Whereas most western nations have recorded fewer road deaths per year, the number of people killed by traffic in the US has been climbing over the last decade.

The rise has been blamed on a number of factors, including more people walking, limited pavement space and more speeding.

But a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association noted that the rise of SUVs on the roads was also a factor. Research released this month found a link between an increase in taller, heavier cars with big, blunt bonnets and a rise in the number of deaths of people on foot.

A study by America’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that vehicles with a bonnet height above a metre and tall grilles, rather than wedge-shaped bonnets, were 44pc more likely to kill a person upon collision than a traditional sloped-bonnet car with a height below 76cm, which is thigh height for many adults.

“We don’t think that the bigger vehicles are the only thing that’s driving the increase in pedestrian deaths,” says Jessica Cicchino, vice president of Research at IIHS. “But vehicle size is something that we’ve seen certainly contribute to pedestrian deaths. And we’ve been seeing vehicles getting bigger in the United States.”

The findings are worrying given that SUVs now contribute more than half of car sales in the US and more than 40pc in the UK.

Taller cars with flatter bonnets are a problem because when they hit a pedestrian, the head can be struck quickly and hard, Cicchino says.

Being hit further up the body can mean being bounced onto the asphalt or oncoming traffic.

Stef Willems of the Vias Institute, formerly known as the Belgian Road Safety Institute, says: “It’s pure physics, and there’s only one thing you have to know about physics in road safety: force = mass x acceleration.”

In other words, heavy cars are mathematically tied to nastier crashes.

Weight has an impact on pile-ups too – occupants of a one tonne vehicle are three times more likely to die if they are struck by a two tonne vehicle, compared to a crash involving cars of equal weight.

However, Willems is quick to point out that this is not necessarily a SUV problem. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these types of vehicles, which are defined by combining features of a road car with an off-road vehicle.

Rather, it is the weight of the cars that are problematic.

Willems says: “We should be careful in saying an SUV is dangerous. I think we should say if it’s a big car, which weighs more and it has a lot of power, it is dangerous.”

Smaller crossover SUVs models offer much less of a threat than their full-sized cousins.

It is this distinction between SUVs themselves and their weight that helps explain why the UK has so far not imported the problem with road deaths that has been seen in the US.

SUVs here are generally smaller than their American cousins. UK garages, roads and parking bays practically restrict how big they can be.

However, there is still a risk of importing the problem from the US if tight rules are not maintained, says Margaret Winchcomb of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which supports MPs in their research.

Ford Trucks
SUVs now contribute more than half of car sales in the US and more than 40pc in the UK - Paul Sancya/AP

Since last year, cars sold in the EU have had to adhere to new safety rules that mandate intelligent speed assistance, attention warnings for driver drowsiness and automatic braking in new cars. The UK is yet to adopt these rules.

If the Government does not adopt them, there is the “potential for us to be importing vehicles from outside the European market which don’t include these enhanced safety features, and therefore put ourselves at greater risk”, Winchcomb says.

The UK also still benefits from European regulations that are stricter on pedestrian safety than US equivalents, says Alex Thompson, principal engineer at automotive risk consultancy Thatcham Research. Cars must be designed in such a way that the vehicle absorbs more energy from any collision than a pedestrian who is hit, thus making an accident more survivable for the pedestrian.

“Certainly in Europe, there’s been a real focus on vulnerable road user protection,” he says, which may explain some of the disparity in falling European pedestrian deaths and soaring US ones.

Thompson is hopeful that UK cars will not fall behind on safety standards because European manufacturers will still have to meet EU regulations.

In the UK, road deaths have broadly averaged about 1,700 per year for the last decade.

However, a case could be made that not enough is being done to bring that number down.

Norway and Sweden had a similar level of road mortality as the UK in 2012. The two Scandinavian countries have reduced road deaths by 20pc since then. However, the UK has only managed a reduction of a few percent.

Winchcomb would like to see a return of the Government’s Road Safety Strategic Framework, which targets a reduction in road deaths. The framework was published in 2011 and was last updated in 2019, when a two-year action plan was published. This has since lapsed.

Winchcomb says: “If we were to have that, I think that would draw us back to focusing on the issue in hand.”

For now, the UK’s roads remain comparatively safe. Yet campaigners will remain on guard as vehicles across the Atlantic get bigger and road deaths rise.

A government spokesman said: “The UK’s roads are among the safest in the world, and we continue to update regulations to make cars as safe as possible.

“All cars sold in the UK, irrespective of their size and mass, are required to meet rigorous performance-based standards.”

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