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
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.

But there were also many impassioned responses about how these truck and SUV designs endanger the the lives of people walking and biking. They noted that the height and shape of the front end makes it all-but-certain that a struck person won’t go over the hood, but will instead be crushed under the vehicle.

Some well-established names in the bicycle industry also chimed in on the thread. Bike blogger and social media influencer John Watson (aka John Prolly) of Prolly is Not Probably and The Radavist warned of the upcoming 9,000-lb Hummer EV. And Keither Bontrager, an innovator who along with Gary Fisher is credited with inventing the modern mountain bike, posted numerous replies, including one of a Tiktok video of a person driving a large truck who was unable to see a Corvette directly in front of him in traffic without looking at a special video screen.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the increasing size of trucks and SUVs on the roads today. And seeing these vehicles up-close made it all the more apparent just how dubious it all seems. People have been hauling boats and stacking plywood in pickup beds for decades, so why does a truck need to have a front end that comes up to my shoulders (and I’m 6’1″)? The sad truth is that it may just boil down to design language and aesthetic. 

“My first week in Detroit, I was driving through downtown and seeing the fist of Joe Louis, and remember thinking that’s what this truck should look like: a massive fist moving through the air,” said GMC Sierra HD lead designer Karan Moorjani in an interview with Muscle Cars & Trucks. “We spent a lot of time making sure that when you stand in front of this thing it looks like it’s going to come get you.”

The front end of a new Ram truck vs a 36-year-old adult man. Photo: AJ LaTrace
The front end of a new Ram truck vs a 36-year-old adult man. Photo: AJ LaTrace

Not only is the vehicle meant to be imposing — it’s intentionally designed to look intimidating. The truck is meant to be an extension of the driver’s ego, and what’s being expressed is pure, unbridled aggression. Moorjani says that the “pissed-off feel” and exaggerated proportions of the truck’s design is to make the vehicle as menacing as possible. “There’s something really mean and violent about an all-black truck,” Moorjani said to Muscle Cars & Trucks.

The irony is that a black 2022 GMC Sierra 3500 HD in the Denali trim like the one on display at the auto show costs around $85,000. Not only does the truck appear “pissed off,” but it’s also incredibly expensive. 

Pedestrians have good reason to be concerned about these types of vehicles being driven through city streets. Not only is the vehicle proportioned like a massive fist in the air, but the enormously large front end on contemporary pickup trucks and SUVs obscure the field of view for drivers. Indianapolis news station WTHR ran a segment in 2020 about the blind spots of these large vehicles and how dangerous they can be. To illustrate how difficult it is to see pedestrians directly in front of the vehicle, it was only when the reporter sat nine children in a row in front of a Chevy Tahoe that the driver was able to see one of the kid’s heads. 

This driver couldn’t see any children until nine kids were lined up in front of their truck. Image: WTHR
This driver couldn’t see any children until nine kids were lined up in front of their truck. Image: WTHR

Buyers of these large trucks say that newer vehicles have front-facing cameras and other features like automatic braking to help prevent deadly crashes. But as Keith Bontrager asked in one of his responses to my thread, “What’s the driver’s response time when they have to look at a forward-facing grille cam to decide whether it’s safe to go?”

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

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.