The same mechanisms that help cars overcome rocky terrain can spell danger for pedestrians.
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In the incessant onslaught that is social media, it’s not often a single post stops me in my tracks. But during a routine scroll through my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, one tweet did just that.

Irish Greens MP Ciaran Cuffe had written the following about the new Land Rover Defender: “Yikes. The new Land Rover Defender can ‘overcome hitting a 200mm high square-edged kerb at 40km/h’. Not great news for any pedestrian standing on the other side of that kerb.”

Having read countless articles excitedly pre-empting the updated Defender (arguably one of 2020’s hottest new-car arrivals), this sober perspective was a departure from the usual breathless anticipation... And a jarring one at that.

Call me oblivious, but until that point I hadn’t really considered that some of the features we often celebrate for making a car off-road-ready could potentially spell danger for pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.

And I had to wonder – while today’s SUVs are regularly regarded as the safer choice for their occupants, are they equally as safe for those outside the car?

I had questions, so I decided to take them to someone whose work was to anticipate, analyse and improve on road-safety issues like this one: Associate Professor Stuart Newstead of the Monash University Accident Research Centre.

Professor Newstead told me there’s a key distinction when we talk about SUVs and road safety.

“There’s a division between a Toyota LandCruiser and something like a Mazda CX-5 or a Hyundai Santa Fe,” he told me. “They tend to divide quite nicely around their type of construction.”

He explained that while more regularly sized SUVs like the CX-5 tend to be safe for both occupants and road users, it’s often four-wheel-drive, dual-cab utes like the Toyota HiLux or Ford Ranger, or heavier SUVs like a Toyota Fortuner or Ford Everest, that are built on what he called a “problematic” ladder chassis.

As well as being incredibly heavy, the “truck-like” construction of these body-on-frame cars often means they boast a "tall, stiff frontal structure" that can spell danger for both pedestrians and other vehicles.

“We’re seeing the Australian fleet polarise into either big stuff like these 4WD utes or smaller cars for urban use, and they’re really incompatible – the crash burden is taken by the smaller cars," Mr Newstead said.

And that’s other cars... Consider how these high-riding off-roaders can impact pedestrians.

While smaller passenger cars tend to hit pedestrians and knock them over – which is still a far-from-ideal scenario – 4WDs can drive up and over them.

“The reality is, departure angles give you the ability to go over things," Mr Newstead said.

“High-riding vehicles are over-represented in reversing fatalities. Too often, the child in the driveway ends up under the car rather than just being hit by the back of it.”

"High-riding vehicles are over-represented in reversing fatalities."

It wasn’t long ago that our idea of a ute was a Holden Commodore or Ford Falcon. Then, along came cars with slogans like 'eats utes for breakfast' or 'get in or get out of the way'. It's been a societal adjustment, and one that I personally believe our roads and motorists are still getting used to.

It’s a difficult and wide-ranging topic to broach in a single article, with arguments on both sides.

But for those who may believe a bigger car leads to improved protection, they should perhaps consider the effects the combination of weight and momentum could have in the event of a collision with a solid object, or how a reduced number of deformable crumple zones could see the shock of an impact transferred from the car’s front end and onto its occupants.

It’s true that, for many people, off-roading, high-riding, large vehicles are a necessity for work – something recognised by the government’s instant asset write-off incentive. And when used appropriately, these cars are fantastic, safe for occupants and capable of hauling huge payloads or tackling tricky terrain.

But as they become a trend – possibly part of a herd mentality encouraged by the increasing size of cars on our roads – it’s worth ensuring buyers are educated and aware of the associated risks.

So, what's the solution? Mr Newstead doesn’t think mandating special driver’s licences – like the ones given to truck drivers – is necessarily the answer.

Rather, he wants people to be aware a larger car doesn’t always spell 'improved safety', particularly when it comes to road users other than yourself.

“None of these big 4WDs in our ratings get our ‘safer pick’ badge … You’re not gaining for yourself, you’re putting others at a penalty,” he explained.

"The best compromise we see on the roads today is a medium SUV."

For me, I still believe consumer choice is important, and those in need of high-riding, off-roading, load-hauling cars should have every right to own and drive them.

I also believe that as car sizes increase, so too does corresponding safety technology, meaning the industry itself is conscious of the risks associated with these cars.

I just encourage manufacturers and key safety bodies to equip the consumer with the crucial information required to help them make an informed purchase. And, in doing so, encourage them to think just as hard about the safety of the people outside the car, as they do the ones inside.