GRINDING GEARS: Have vehicle designers lost sight of pedestrians?

This week found the news cycle absolutely dominated by Elon Musk’s new Cybertruck electric pickup concept. As with all things Tesla, the reveal was a mix of smart and kinda stupid.

Stupid: it looks like the love child of a DeLorean DMC-12 and a coffin.

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Smart: such a polarizing design has everyone talking.

Stupid: most of the features of the Cybertruck wouldn’t be road-legal, from the lack of side mirrors to the wheels projecting from the bodywork.

Smart: Tesla has already shown three non-production vehicles, and continues to take pre-orders to keep themselves afloat.

Obviously, there’s been a lot of argument over whether this thing is yet another publicity stunt by a corporation that sure looks a lot like a pyramid scheme, or the sort of genius move that only Elon could understand … “did you know he has his own rocket company he has rockets you know.” From the sidelines, it’s a bit like the part in Toy Story where Buzz Lightyear thinks he’s an actual spaceman and it’s driving Woody absolutely nuts.

Tesla
Tesla’s Cybertruck concept caused major buzz in the auto world this week, but its ultra aggressive shape is part of a worrying trend of more and more big and angry vehicles on our roads, writes columnist Brendan McAleer. photo supplied Tesla

However, even among the Tesla faithful, there’s been a bit of a pullback on the Cybertruck’s appearance. You see, while previous Teslas have been sleek and modern and exciting, this current bare-metal machine is brutal-looking. The stunt with the extra-strong, bulletproof windows (which broke – oops), conjures up the image of Cybertrucks venturing out of gated communities into post-apocalyptic streets, shrugging off attacks from an impoverished populace. The Cybertruck looks like it’s designed to run people over.

And the Cybertruck ain’t alone. Many modern pickups and SUVs are hulking things, with angry grilles that grow ever more bluff and dangerous-looking. While there are regulations to provide some protection for pedestrians in case of an impact, more and more of the vehicles on our roads look like they were designed to turn us all into shoestring fries.

Never mind design. The fact is, until we figure out a way to build the front of a car out of whatever material they make Nerf darts out of, getting hit by a car is going to hurt. Pedestrians are highly vulnerable, as you will well know these days if you’ve ever had to cross a road in these ever-darkening winter conditions.

According to recent statistics from various traffic safety organizations, pedestrian deaths due to collisions are at an all-time high. Part of the problem does seem to be the market’s addiction to high-riding crossovers and pickup trucks, but there’s more to it than that.

Around this time of year, there are usually various safety drives to help reduce the number of pedestrians hurt, and generally these focus on the responsibilities of the pedestrian themselves. Police and safety organizations distribute reflective bands, or lights, and encourage people to be aware of their surroundings.

Overall, this sort of thing makes a great deal of sense. Whenever I’m out walking with my kids, I make sure we look like a mobile Daft Punk concert, strobing away like a couple of Euro-beat Christmas trees. I trust the average driver with my family’s safety about as much as I trust Tesla to deliver the first Cybertruck on time and for the claimed $39,990 price tag. As in, I don’t.

But here’s the problem. Should it be the pedestrian’s responsibility alone to make sure they’re seen? Routinely, we see news stories cover collisions where someone has run over someone else by softening things (“an accident”), or by blaming the pedestrian. They were “distracted,” or “jay-walking,” or they “darted out into traffic.”

The last one really gets me. You’d think we were living in a world of Usain Bolts by the way “darting out” gets used so often. Human beings just aren’t that fast.

If you’re driving along an unlit country lane and a deer leaps out in front of you and you hit it, that could be considered an accident. Deer move quickly, and they’re also idiots.

If you drive into someone in a crosswalk on a dark and rainy night, well that’s pretty much your fault. Yes, pedestrians sometimes dress in darker clothing than is sensible, and perhaps they might not have double-checked or made eye contact or whatever. And perhaps they did jog out from the curb because the red hand started blinking.

Here’s the thing. Driving is hard, and whether or not pedestrians can occasionally act in entitled ways, the person at the wheel has a greater responsibility than the person on foot. You can talk about the legality of right-of-way when stepping off the curb until you turn blue, but the fact of the matter is that when you switch on that ignition, you’re in charge of about 2,000 kilograms of near-instant death.

It’s a bit like parenting. I expect my kids to take responsibility for their actions, and be contributing members of our family. When they aren’t, I feel the urge to cheerfully employ some appropriate consequence like firing them via home-built trebuchet into Burrard Inlet. But apparently you can’t do that because of “laws” and “my wife.”

Thus, I have to exert a little self-control because there is a greater amount of responsibility required of me. Where pedestrians are concerned, I assure you that I too have muttered, “What are you doing, you clown?” under my breath as someone has wandered out without looking, with their nose glued to their phone.

However, just as I view the average driver with suspicion when I’m on foot, I also view the average pedestrian in the same dim light. Or perhaps not a dim light at all. I have to make the assumption that drivers aren’t trying to kill me, and that pedestrians aren’t trying to get run over. Everybody’s just trying to get to or from their work or school as best they can. And sometimes we make mistakes.

As drivers, our mistakes can have huge consequences. Which is why, when it’s raining out and it feels hard to see, you just have to slow down and drive within the limits of your vision. It’s really just as simple as that, and if we can’t expect the average driver to do so, then any part of a drive for pedestrian safety has to include law enforcement sitting at high-collision-rate crosswalks and handing out penalties. Like maybe some light trebucheting.

So stay safe out there. And mutter away if you must. You’ve got to be the bigger person. Even if others can be stupid, be smart.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

 

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