Peak Car’s Impending Arrival Has a Deadly Side Effect

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Bloomberg Businessweek has laid out what “peak car” will look like, as “new forms of mobility are making privately owned vehicles obsolete.” Peak car isn’t here yet, though, and before it arrives, the U.S. fleet will keep getting older, bigger and more dangerous for anyone not inside a vehicle.

Fifty years ago, the average age of a passenger car in the U.S. was 5.6 years. It’s double that now. Light trucks were older in 1970, at 7.3 years, and their average age is now the same as cars. Cars keep getting better, as I’ve noted before, and that means they last longer.

Peak Car’s Impending Arrival Has a Deadly Side Effect

Average age, though, doesn’t really tell us anything about how much those cars are being driven. A new survey from iSeeCars, which tallies data from resale sites, finds that the top 10 light vehicles most likely to be resold with more than 200,000 miles on them are pickups and sport utility vehicles.

They’re also massive. Six of the top 10 vehicles in the iSeeCars list are heavier than the original U.S. military Humvee (admittedly, that’s a Humvee without armor).

Peak Car’s Impending Arrival Has a Deadly Side Effect

I asked Julie Blackley of iSeeCars why SUVs are so dominant in its ranking. She gave several reasons: They’re relatively expensive cars, which means drivers tend to maintain them; they’re “family haulers” meant to be driven often; and they’re built like trucks. She added that because iSeeCars’ data tracks resales, these vehicles are likely to be driven well beyond 200,000 miles thanks to their new owners.

The combination of those factors has some troubling implications for public safety, in particular for pedestrians. As the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety noted in a report on SUV-related deaths:

SUVs are higher off the ground than cars, they're stiffer, and they have blunter geometry in the front compared with the more sloping front ends of cars. These features of SUVs can lead to more injuries of all types when a pedestrian is struck by an SUV, especially injuries to the chest and head.

Indeed, pedestrian fatalities are soaring, from a low of 4,100 in 2009 to 6,227 last year.

Peak Car’s Impending Arrival Has a Deadly Side Effect

And while some of that increase correlates with more miles being driven since 2009, it doesn’t fully explain the magnitude of the change. Vehicle miles traveled on a trailing 12-month basis are up less than 9 percent since 2009, while pedestrian fatalities are up more than 50 percent in the same period.

Peak Car’s Impending Arrival Has a Deadly Side Effect

Peak car is coming, but before then, American drivers are locking in years, even decades, with their big vehicles — and helping to lock in potentially troubling trends in public health and safety. Let’s hope that pedestrian fatalities don’t also reach a new peak.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Nathaniel Bullard is a BloombergNEF energy analyst, covering technology and business model innovation and system-wide resource transitions.

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