New NACTO and USDOT Volpe Center reports call for improved vehicle design to increase safety

By Brian Lutenegger

A pair of new reports examines how the design of large vehicles—such as fire trucks, garbage and recycling vehicles, and freight trucks—impacts traffic fatalities in cities. These types of vehicles have a disproportionate impact on urban roadway safety for all users. However, vehicle design changes and new technology could significantly reduce that impact.

New research by NACTO and the USDOT Volpe Center examines the safety of large trucks on urban roadways. The researchers note that these types of vehicles make up only four percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet nationally, but cause seven percent of pedestrian, 11 percent of bicycle, and 12 percent of car and light truck fatalities. More alarmingly, while traffic fatalities as a whole have declined slightly over the past year, large truck-involved fatalities have increased by 9 percent.

The study found that these vehicles serve as an impediment to increased roadway safety in cities. While roadway design changes like narrower lanes, smaller turning radii, and decreased crossing distances would increase overall safety—especially for pedestrians and bicyclists—the space required to maneuver and park these vehicles as currently designed in the United States means that these design changes have not happened in many cities.

The researchers also found that the smaller emergency response trucks used in Europe and Asia can be just as effective in an emergency but require up to half the turning radius of their American counterparts. Other design enhancements and technological advances can also contribute to safety.

Finally, in many cities, particularly in areas with congestion, changes in emergency response operations could allow for street design improvements to increase safety while allowing faster emergency response. Using smaller equipment in congested or constrained areas—even motorcycles or bicycles when appropriate for the type of response—can allow cities to redesign streets so vehicles travel at safe speeds, improving safety for all roadway users.

San Francisco is one American city that has already purchased new compact fire trucks. In that city, the fire department collaborated with bicyclist and pedestrian groups to urge the city to purchase new trucks. This is an important step in the city’s Vision Zero policy to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024.

Another vehicle design feature that can increase safety is side guards. This feature helps prevent pedestrians and bicyclists from sliding under the vehicle and being run over by the vehicle’s rear wheels. Pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vehicles are often in the driver’s large blind spot when these vehicles make turns.

Common on long distance trucks and required in Japan and parts of the European Union, U.S. cities are beginning to require side guards on short haul, city-owned vehicles. Portland, OR; Washington, DC; Boston, MA; and New York City are among the cities that require their municipal vehicles to have side guards. The latter two have partnered with the Volpe Center to develop recommended specifications for this safety enhancement.

U.S. cities are beginning to recognize the disproportionate safety impacts of large trucks, particularly when they operate in an urban environment or other congested areas. The U.S. lags behind its counterparts in Asia and Europe when it comes to vehicle design and other enhancements that would increase safety for other roadway users.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Associate at Smart Growth America.