Cars are getting more dangerous, and regulators can’t stop it

We need to radically overhaul how we regulate vehicles to halt dangerous trends in car design

No-one should ever die on the road. To many, that sounds like a utopian ideal. Most of us implicitly accept that there is risk inherent in travelling on the road. The idea that the benefits of our transportation system outweigh the financial, environmental, and human costs might seem cold, but to most it also seems reasonable. Yet deaths on the road are not an inevitability. Helsinki and Oslo both achieved zero road deaths in 2019, through implementing 30km/h speed limits, making roads narrower, placing high tolls on motorists entering the city, and improving alternatives to driving. These measures all have one thing in common – they disincentivize car travel. Cars are the major threat to safety on our roads, both to drivers themselves and to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. Measures to shift people away from cars and onto active and public transport are therefore important for increasing safety. However, avoiding car trips is not possible in all cases – for instance, Ireland has a relatively high amount of one-off houses in rural areas which cannot be easily connected to urban areas via public transport. This makes it especially worrying that the trend in car design is towards vehicles which are heavier, bigger, and more distracting to drivers.

156 people died on Irish roads in 2022 an increase of 14% on 2021, to, while pedestrian deaths doubled in the same time period, rising to 44. Over the last four years there has been no clear pattern in road fatalities. This implies that our efforts to reach Vision Zero (no road deaths by 2050) as enshrined in the government’s Road Safety Strategy, are stagnating. Part of the reason might be that despite a renewed focus on RSA awareness campaigns and Gardaí enforcement, cars themselves are getting more dangerous. For example, consider car size. The average weight of new cars sold in Europe increased by 21% between 2001 and 2022, and bigger types of cars, such as SUVs have significantly increased in market share. This is a real problem for safety – heavier and bigger cars, especially SUVs – are both more likely to cause collisions and be involved in fatal collisions.

One reason for this is that visibility is poorer in larger cars. Although it may seem safer to sit higher on the road, the larger front blind spot increases the risk of fatal front-over accidents, the higher ground clearance and larger door pillars obscure cyclists and pedestrians in traffic, and the higher centre of gravity increases the risk of roll-overs. SUV drivers are more likely to be drive dangerously too, as their false sense of safety leads them to take more risks compared to drivers of smaller cars. Bigger cars such as SUVs are more dangerous for everyone when involved in a road traffic incident too. The safety of a car design depends partly upon how it interacts with other car designs – this is known as crash compatibility. When there are large differences in the weight and stiffness of cars on our roads, drivers of smaller cars are exposed to greater danger. The higher ground clearance poses a problem for pedestrians too – when a pedestrian is struck by a normal car, they tend to go over the bonnet and the impact is focused on their lower half. When struck by an SUV, they are more likely to be knocked over onto the ground, be run over, and suffer head trauma. US regulators have been collecting data on the category of vehicles involved in collisions since the 90s, and they have found one consistent and clear relationship: when an SUV is involved, the collision is more likely to be fatal for everyone. (Similar data is not available for Ireland or the EU.)

Of course, larger vehicles and high ground clearance are necessary for some people – particularly farmers who need to go off-road, and tradespeople who need more carrying capacity. However, other vehicles are often a much more practical choice. I’ve never seen someone drive a Nissan Qashqai across their farm, and almost all tradespeople use vans. Anyway, this wouldn’t explain the rapid ise in SUV market share across the past 20 years. Some argue that it doesn’t matter whether people need the extra features afforded by an SUV. They claim this is an issue of liberty, and that people should have the freedom to choose any car which matches their preferences, even if these preferences are only based on aesthetics. However, this argument fails to acknowledge that SUVs do not only endanger their drivers – they endanger everyone else on the road, too. Aesthetic preferences should not trump road safety. To no real surprise, the most important factor behind the extraordinary growth in market share of SUVs comes down to profit and clever marketing. Due to tax and safety regulation exemptions, manufacturers of ‘light trucks’ in the US and EU could make greater profits by upselling consumers to larger, less efficient, and more dangerous vehicles.

Our current regulatory framework needs to be updated to reverse this trend. In the EU, vehicles regulations and tests are set by the European Commission, and enforced by national standards bodies – in Ireland, the relevant body is the National Standards Authority. The process is essentially the same as for other consumer goods. Automakers know what the tests are, and if their vehicle passes, then they can begin mass production. These tests are important for safety, and ensure that all cars meet a minimum standard. However, I believe we can learn from an industry which is even more heavily regulated: pharmaceutical drugs. Drugs are regulated by the European Medical Agency (EMA), who carry out multiple rigorous clinical trials to prove that new medicines are both safe to use and provide tangible benefits. There are no pre-determined tests; instead, the EMA simply trial the drug and evaluate the outcome. Pre-determined tests would make no sense as new designs present new safety concerns which cannot be quickly addressed through legislation. Therefore, the EMA can reject any drug if it cannot prove that it is safe and beneficial.

This process should be emulated for car design regulation. Instead of meeting pre-determined minimum standards, any and all alterations to a car’s design should be tested for their effect on safety, and the regulatory body should have the power to reject car designs on these grounds. If it can be shown that new designs are at least as safe as previous safe designs for that category of car, then they can enter mass production. If not, manufacturers should go back to the drawing board. For instance, family cars which are larger, heavier, and higher than previous models with no demonstrable benefits beyond aesthetics would not be approved under this system. Vehicles with off-road capabilities could still be developed, but only if they met similar weight and height criteria to older models which are deemed practical and safe. This body could also spearhead development in safety technologies. Rather than leaving this responsibility to manufacturers, a body with the capacity to develop new safety systems could propose and enforce systems which are vital for safety but would be commercially unpopular. These competencies could work together – heavier cars might be allowed where there is a clear practical need for such vehicles, but they might have to come fitted with GPS-enabled speed limiters or tachographs (black boxes which collect safe driving data and submit it to insurance companies).

A re-defined role for vehicle regulators would both encourage more active regulation of the sector and enable regulators to stop harmful new technologies and design trends from becoming accepted and expected by drivers. These benefits can be illustrated through two important examples: digital infotainment systems and speed limiters. While digital systems have become widespread in cars, to the detriment of safety, something so simple and effective as a speed limiter is fiercely opposed by car manufactures and many motorists. An EMA-style regulator with funding to develop safety systems could alleviate both of these problems.

The rise of digital ‘infotainment’ systems in cars is a perfect example of how our current regulatory system is broken. As digital technology has become more advanced, it has been increasingly integrated into the driving experience – apparently with little regard to safety. ‘Hands-free’ systems for taking and receiving phone calls is the most egregious example of this trend. Research has shown that taking a phone call is just as distracting regardless of whether one uses hands-free technology or is hold the phone. In both cases, the conversation is the problem. (Talking to a passenger is less distracting because the intensity of the conversation will adjust based on the attention required on the road.) The RSA advises that a driver should never take a call while the vehicle is in motion, hands-free or not. Yet one would struggle to find a car which doesn’t have a hands-free system, with buttons placed neatly beside the driving position on the steering wheel. How are designs like this allowed? If cars were regulated like pharmaceutical drugs, then regulators would have to prove that a hands-free system is not dangerous to use, a test which it would clearly fail. The large touchscreen display which is commonplace in new cars might also be threatened by such a regulator. These displays can play videos, search the internet, operate as a sat-nav and even provide access to functions previously operated using dials, such as air conditioning and radio controls. The unfortunate reality is that now they are common, drivers find them convenient. Anyone proposing regulation against such technology would be subject to fierce lobbying from car manufacturers, and would find that their ideas are also politically unpopular. This is an obvious threat to road safety, and one which should never have been allowed onto the dashboard in the first place.

Infotainment systems make cars and the road more dangerous. However, one technology which could make the road much safer overnight is the humble speed limiter. Speed is consistently noted as the most important determinant of risk in a collision, and significant resources are devoted to enforcing speed limits and encouraging slower driving. Yet for almost as long as we have had automobiles, we have had speed limiters. Indeed, Cincinnati came very close to mandating 15km/h speed limiters in the 1930s, but this effort was thwarted by lobbying from car manufacturers and rich motorists. It took nearly a century, but the EU finally brought speed limiters back into the policy debate in 2022. Again, however, these efforts were attacked vociferously by motorists’ lobby groups and car manufacturers. What began as a proposal to mandate GPS-integrated speed limiters became a mandate for ‘Intelligent Speed Assistance’ (ISA), partly due to fears that active speed limiters were not safe yet. ISA refers to a range of different systems, but at its weakest would function like a seatbelt warning, which alerts the driver for a short time and then stops. Like other modern safety assists, manufacturers can also allow drivers to turn it off completely when they start their car. This might be effective at stopping people from going slightly over the speed limit, but it would hardly deter those who are aware they are breaking the law and are willing to do so. A strong and well-funded regulator for vehicle standards could make the public case for actual speed limiters, and spend the necessary resources to develop versions which integrate with GPS data to regulate driver speed in a safe and reliable way. This could alleviate fears about the dangers of a system which regulates driver speed, while raising awareness of the massive benefits of effectively ending speeding on our roads. Yet our current regulatory framework leaves this responsibility up to manufacturers, who naturally are not jumping at the opportunity to develop safety systems when they might be unpopular.

These two examples show how absurd the discourse around car technology has become – we dismiss speed limiters as intrusive and overbearing, while accepting hands-free technology and mini-television screens on our dashboards. Combined with the trend towards heavier and more dangerous cars, this proves that our current framework for regulating cars is no longer fit for purpose and must be radically overhauled.