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Beyond Chicagoland

How my Chicago Auto Show tweets reignited the debate over unsafe vehicle design

The new Chevrolet Silverado at the Chicago Auto Show. The front end is nearly as tall as an adult. Photo: Al Di Zenzo

Shortly after entering the Chicago Auto Show this past weekend, I saw a pickup truck that seemed almost comically large, so I asked my friend to take a photo of me standing next to it. As we continued through the show, the very large front ends with massive grilles and headlights on pickups and SUVs were a recurring theme and we took photos of the two of us standing in front of a handful of vehicles from Chevrolet, GMC, Ram, and Ford. 

I posted the photos to Twitter, expecting that there would be some kind of reaction to them, but the thread ended up taking a life of its own, with more than 8,500 "likes" and more than a thousand retweets. The responses ranged from declarations that all large trucks should be permanently banned from city streets, to cynical comments questioning my manhood.

In Chicago, children and other road users have been seriously injured or killed by drivers in SUVs who may have been unable to see them due to vehicle design, which also reduced the chance of the victim surviving the impact. For example, last July off-duty police officer Michael Leverett reportedly ran a stop sign in the West Ridge neighborhood, fatally striking Hershel Weinberger, 9, on his bike. The design of his truck, a lifted Toyota Tundra with bull bars, which exacerbate pedestrian and bike crashes, almost certainly contributed to the tragedy.

The officer’s truck with Hershel Weinberger's bike under it. Image: WGN News
Leverett’s truck with Hershel Weinberger's bike under it. Image: WGN News
The officer’s truck with Hershel Weinberger's bike under it. Image: WGN News

From some of the responses to my thread, it's clear that in this incredibly divided country the act of simply discussing truck design as it relates to the safety of bystanders can quickly devolve into a culture war. It's sad that this topic can’t be explored in a rational way without the toxic polarization that taints so many other efforts to reach consensus. However, it's clear that decisive measures are needed to make new trucks and SUVs safer for those outside of the vehicle. 

In Illinois, trucks have separate registration and license plate guidelines, but there’s only a $5 difference between registering a pickup and a standard passenger car. However, within the city of Chicago, truck owners pay $225 for a city sticker, versus $95 for a typical passenger vehicle. And perhaps the Chicago City Council could impose other rules or restrictions for non-commercial trucks and SUVs with the intent of improving safety for vulnerable road users. 

But at a national level, it’s tough to say how much political will there would be for revised design and safety standards for these types of vehicles. However, the danger is real and concern is valid and the problem only seems to get worse with each new model year. One thing's for sure: If decisions about vehicle design are purely left to the market to decide, the aggressive “pissed off” design language of American pickup trucks and SUVs will be around for many years to come. This design language helps to sell a lot of vehicles but it also contributes to countless traffic deaths. 

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