In February, 7-year-old Dolma Naadhun was crossing the intersection of Newtown Road and 45th Street in Astoria with her mother and sister when the driver of a 2021 Ford Explorer blew through a stop sign, striking and killing Dolma. One month later, New York City Department of Transportation commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez visited the crash site with other officials, met with community members demanding a traffic signal be installed, and promised to make changes to the street — including “daylighting” the intersection using curb extensions and plastic bollards.
State assemblymember Zohran Mamdani also visited the scene that day and realized that something else needed to change. “When you take a step back and think about traffic violence in New York City,” he said, “you start to understand that this is a systemic issue that is incentivized by the policies that we have in place with regard to the design of our streets and what kind of vehicles we allow to be on our roads.” Whether a driver runs a stop sign or a red light, statistically, certain cars — namely, bigger SUVs and trucks — are more likely to kill a 7-year-old. This is why Mamdani is co-introducing legislation for a weight-based vehicle-registration fee intended to discourage people from purchasing heavier vehicles. “The car industry is pushing the sale of heavier and larger vehicles,” he says. “The state has to make it clear that these types of vehicles come with a certain kind of cost.”
Last year, 16 children were killed by traffic violence in New York City, a record-breaking number that’s higher than any year since Vision Zero started in 2014. This statistic can be linked to the increase in heavier vehicles in New York, according to analysis of city data by Transportation Alternatives. Over the past decade, the proportion of SUVs and trucks has steadily grown in the city; as of 2020, these vehicles made up over 60 percent of passenger vehicles registered here. Their involvement in child deaths has also risen: Between 2014 and 2019, nearly half of the children killed on the city’s streets were struck by SUVs or other large vehicles. From 2019 to today, that number rose to 77 percent. And in 2022 alone, that number rose again, to more than 80 percent. “We can redesign our streets as much as we want, but at a certain point we also have to start to look at the shape and the weight of these vehicles,” says Philip Miatkowski, senior director of research and policy at Transportation Alternatives, which has been working to pass a package of traffic-safety bills at the state level. “We’re seeing vehicles like the Hummer EV, which weighs 9,000 pounds, coming onto the car lots.” (In comparison, the average midsize sedan weighs 3,300 pounds.)
New York State already charges weight-based registration fees, but they’re laughably low. Currently, the owner of a 2,877-pound Honda Civic pays $47 every two years, while the owner of a vehicle twice that weight pays $112.50. These fees don’t reflect, in any way, the potential damage that such an increase in weight presents. The legislation announced today would introduce new weight-based registration fees calculated using scientific data, which prove heavier vehicles cause more deaths and serious injuries; one study estimates that for every 1,000 pounds of vehicle weight, the chance of fatality increases by 46 percent. These fees would incrementally increase starting next year until they reach the full rate within six years (during which time car owners could switch to smaller, safer vehicles). This would mean that by 2030, the owner of a Ford Explorer, with a curb weight of 4,345 pounds, would pay $680.40 every two years and the owner of a Ford F-150 Lightning truck, with a curb weight of 6,015 pounds, would pay $1,349.90 every two years. And even though that Ford F-150 Lightning is electric, it would not be eligible for a $1,000 credit given to all EVs because it’s over 5,000 pounds, factoring in the reality that mammoth EVs, despite their eliminated tailpipe emissions, are even more of a threat to the people outside them than their gas-powered counterparts. (The Hummer EV owner would also have to pay full price.) The new fee would only apply to passenger vehicles — drivers who use large vehicles for work can apply for a commercial registration, and all the SUVs purchased by the NYPD, for example, would be unaffected. But part of the goal of this legislation is simply making sure consumers know how dangerous these heavy vehicles are, Miatkowski says.
Heavier vehicles burden New York in other ways, as tragically demonstrated earlier this year when the century-old garage on Ann Street collapsed under the weight of dozens of SUVs parked on the roof. The extra ton or more that each SUV and truck carries makes them far more destructive to roads, overpasses, and bridges than a sedan. Heavier vehicles also take up more space, requiring the overengineering of everything from parking spaces to lane widths. And because many states rely on gas taxes to pay for road maintenance and repairs, and owners of (often heavier) EVs don’t have to pay them, they are losing critical revenue to keep infrastructure up to date and in good condition. The proposed weight-based registration fee would help to recoup those lost fees and account for the increased damage to roadways. “Cars are getting heavier as it is, and that’s before the shift to electric vehicles,” says State Senator Andrew Gounardes, who is sponsoring the bill as well as a separate bill that would electronically ticket overweight trucks traveling on the crumbling BQE. “We have to start this process right now.”
The weight-based fee would be the first of its kind at the state level; the only U.S. comparison is a similar law passed in Washington, D.C., last year. Such regulations could be mandated at the federal level, where the weight of passenger vehicles using public roads could be controlled to achieve Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s goal of zero fatalities on U.S. streets. But there isn’t much traction on the issue. Last month, a group of federal legislators and advocates “respectfully” urged the National Highway Safety Administration to include a pedestrian-safety rating as part of the standardized safety-rating system for new vehicles known as the New Car Assessment Program. (This was the focus of another New York State bill proposed by Gounardes.) Despite warnings from the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board about the weight of heavier EVs, no plan has been announced. However, as one of the country’s larger car markets, New York has an outsize influence: If the legislation is successful in disincentivizing the purchase of large SUVs and trucks, other states might sign on with the same rules. Similar legislation is being studied in California, which transformed the U.S. auto market when it got 17 other states to go along with its emissions standards — and over time, such fees might prove powerful enough to influence automakers to make lighter vehicles.
While the bill is encouraging in many aspects, it doesn’t address another part of the problem: vehicle height, which is just as important to regulate, says Mickey Edwards, a researcher at the University of Illinois, Springfield’s Center for State Policy and Leadership. For a 2022 study, Edwards was given access to both crash reports and hospital records as part of an unprecedented collaboration between public agencies that concluded children are eight times more likely to die when struck by an SUV compared to a sedan. From his research, Edward argues that taller vehicles — even vehicles like crossover SUVs that are considered “light” but have a higher profile — are responsible for many of the deaths and injuries. “If a Honda Civic hits you, you’ll go up over the hood and roll off, but a lifted truck will knock you to the ground and then you’ll get run over,” he says. Even a modern compact crossover, which “probably doesn’t weigh much more than a larger sedan,” still poses a problem, he says, because “it’s taller and has a bigger blind spot, and hits higher on the person, which will knock kids down.” This has already been factored in elsewhere, Edwards notes: European regulations required automakers over a decade ago to change the front designs of their vehicles, including lowering hoods to make them safer for pedestrians. Such standards would be impossible to meet for the cars currently manufactured for U.S. customers, where the hoods of SUVs and trucks routinely soar above adult shoulders. But there may be another way to disincentivize the purchases of such vehicles, says Edwards. “One other potential idea would be for someone, maybe a city’s DOT, to start keeping a list of the different makes and models of vehicles that are killing pedestrians and cyclists, or kids specifically, and post that publicly,” he says. “That could bring awareness to which cars are more dangerous and also potentially affect insurance rates, which would possibly convince people not to buy certain cars.”
There’s a bit of accountability in New York’s bill, which would require the State DOT to track all fatal crashes by vehicle weight. But the other encouraging aspect of the proposal is that the collected fees stay local, by county, and, after the annual dedications to highway, bridge, and transit trust funds are met, a full 75 percent of the funds raised will go toward safety improvements like bike lanes, bollards, road diets, pedestrianization of streets, and raised crosswalks. This means the neighborhoods most impacted by large vehicles are likely to see the biggest changes. And that might be the most important part of the legislation, says Mamdani. “This is an initiative to make our streets safer for our children,” he says. “And we are making sure a significant portion of this funding goes toward creating the very streetscapes that we know will save their lives.”