The safety standards of pickup trucks have changed a lot in the last fifteen years, making them much safer for passengers, but pickups still differ from other passenger vehicles (cars, SUVs) in some important ways. Trucks certainly feel safer: Riding in one puts you above almost every other vehicle on the road, including many SUVs, and their large size also offers a sense of security—like a suit of armor. But how safe are pickups, really?
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Michael Harley from Autoweb told Quoted that almost all trucks are built using a body-on-frame design, in which passenger compartments are bolted on top of a rigid frame. Passenger cars (and many SUVs), meanwhile, have a unibody design, which increases interior space and lightens the vehicle (thereby decreasing fuel expenditures). A body-on-frame design makes a vehicle stronger and able to perform many heavy-duty tasks (towing, carrying large loads). Unfortunately, as Harley told us, passenger safety isn’t the primary engineering goal for most pickups—what they can do (how much the can carry and tow, how durable they are) are instead the main concerns.
It turns out, all classes of pickup trucks used to be exempt from the federal safety regulations as passenger cars. This meant many lacked basic passive and active safety features, such as airbags and anti-lock brakes. Though things are different (read: safer) now in the land of trucks, safety standards are still playing catch-up with both cars and SUVs.
TRUCK SAFETY FEATURES
Everything changed for pickups in 1999: that model year marked the first that federal regulations held all light pickups (trucks under 8,5000 lbs) to the same major safety standards as passenger cars. These standards (from Cars.com) meant pickups had to have dual front airbags and they had to meet side-impact crash standards, too.
Today, the safety features of pickup trucks vary widely. Many have four-wheel anti-lock brakes and some models either include or offer roof-mounted side-curtain airbags. Even though heavy-duty trucks are exempt from many federal safety regulations, some makes and models still offer important safety features, like dual airbags.
Truck safety ratings tell us a lot about how safe they really are (or aren’t). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates pickups by crashworthiness standards which include how the vehicles fair in front-end collisions and side collisions. They also assess roof strength and head and seat restraints. Finally, the IIHS assesses each vehicle’s front crash prevention. Their top-five 2015 small and large truck picks are here. Notably, none of the top five trucks earn the highest scores on all ratings (meanwhile, all of the IIHS’s top SUV and car picks earn across-the-board high marks).
TRUCKS AND PEDESTRIANS
John Z Wetmore, of Perils for Pedestrians, called our attention to the safety of pedestrians with some sobering facts about pickups. Wetmore told us, “A pedestrian is two to three times more likely to die when struck by a pickup truck or SUV than by a car. This is partly due to the height of the vehicle, and partly due to the stiffness of the vehicle.” While some of the dangers for pedestrians can’t really be fixed—trucks are simply bigger and therefore more dangerous to anyone in their path—Wetmore believes that improved truck designs could lead to better survival for anyone hit by them.
While trucks may not be the safest type of vehicle on the road, they are certainly the most rugged, and people who drive them usually rely on their strength and power daily. Because safety features vary so widely (and because many safety features aren’t standard) it’s important that current and potential pickup truck drivers know what they’ve got in terms of protection. If you’re in the market for a new pickup, Kelley Blue Book has a list of the safest picks from 2015.
Do you drive a pickup? Tell us how you use it in the comments.