A photo of low-profile electric fire trucks on display at China's International Import Expo.
Low-profile electric fire trucks on display at China's International Import Expo. Aly Song/Reuters

Smaller heavy-duty emergency vehicles could save a lot of lives, says a new Department of Transportation report.

This summer, proposed changes to Baltimore’s fire code sparked vitriolic public discord.

Some lawmakers and bike advocates there were pushing to revise the code to legalize the use of narrower street lanes for emergency vehicles, in order to create more room for protected bicycling. They argued that there was plenty of space to share the road; firefighters disagreed, saying that bike lanes would block emergency access.

For a fight that was ultimately over what counts as a safe street,” things got weird. The Baltimore Fire Department released a somewhat baffling nine-minute documentary that tried and failed to suggest how bike lanes would get in their way (“I’m glad I saw the video because it showed me those trucks can get to those fires,” council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young told the Baltimore Sun). The video also seemed to vaguely threaten the leader of the city’s bike advocacy organization. A public hearing in July ended with a near-brawl featuring a white firefighter grabbing the neck of a black city planner. (The firefighter was later charged with assault.)

Now, a new report by the Volpe Center at the U.S. DOT on behalf of the National Association of City Transportation Officials suggests that there’s a more peaceful solution for Baltimore, and indeed any American city trying to balance emergency access and safe bicycle infrastructure: Just make the fire trucks smaller.

And not just firefighting equipment, but lots of heavy-duty vehicles, including garbage trucks and commercial freight trucks. These machines make up just 4 percent of all vehicles of American roads, but are disproportionately involved in deadly collisions: specifically, 7 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 11 percent of bike fatalities. Last year, even as traffic deaths dipped slightly overall, the number of fatal incidents involving big trucks rose by 9 percent.

“A vehicle with smaller blind spots better allows a median-height driver to see people in a bike box or a crosswalk, especially children,” the report states. “For the 50% of drivers who are below median height, the blind spots are actually larger than shown.” (Volpe Center/NACTO)

There’s a connection between those numbers and vehicle size, the report explains. Gigantic cabs reduce driver visibility, blotting out people and objects right along the vehicle and delaying reaction times to coming collisions. Larger vehicles are also heavier, have longer braking distances, and hit people and other vehicles with more destructive force. Designing urban streets with the biggest vehicles in mind—with wide lanes, high speed limits, and few protections for pedestrians or cyclists—reinforces a transportation paradigm that’s unsafe for the least-armored users.

Passenger vehicles are no exception. A recent Detroit Free Press investigation showed how the expanding footprint of SUVs and pickup trucks is driving up traffic fatality rates.

San Francisco’s new Ferrara Apparatus fire engines boast improved maneuverability over standard vehicles. (Volpe Center/NACTO)

Smaller, nimbler trucks with a few key design tweaks could make a dent in those numbers, the report states. Focusing on heavy-duty emergency response vehicles, it highlights the example of San Francisco’s fire department, which recently purchased a set of new fire engines that are eight feet shorter than the standard 33-foot length, have a 25 percent smaller turn radius, and boast an equally robust fire-fighting capacity as any standard shiny red pumper.

Up front in the cab, teardrop-shaped windows or extra “peep” holes in the passenger door could dramatically reduce driver blind spots on heavy-duty vehicles. Milwaukee’s new snow plow fleet shows the potential, with county officials reporting: “With the peep window on the passenger side door, they can see what’s happening…without leaning toward the window.”

“Low-entry cabs and additional ‘peep’ windows in truck cabs let drivers see adjacent people and objects,” the report states. (Volpe Center/NACTO)

Such vehicles are in wide use in Europe and Asia, where narrower city streets have encouraged more compact designs for heavy-duty trucks. “Aerial ladder fire trucks used in major European and Asian cities can reach just as high, despite being only two-thirds as long and having only half of the turn radius as common American models,” the report states. “Some models of pumper fire trucks are up to 30 percent smaller, and have a turn radius up to 50 percent less than more typically procured models.”

Another potential safety improvement: Don’t send a truck unless you have to. In the U.S., only 3 to 5 percent of fire department calls nationally are related to building fires, according to the report. Dispatching a 80-ton fire-fighting vehicle to respond to a possible heart attack doesn’t necessarily make sense. American cities could take a page from international peers that use smaller vehicles—even motorcycles and bikes—to respond to less-urgent medical calls. (And perhaps to those poor kittens caught in trees.)

Part of the challenge is that, in the U.S., there aren’t that many small vehicles on the market that serve heavy-duty and emergency needs. But local governments could collectively agree to demand more options from manufacturers, much as a band of cities did last year to expand electric trucks and buses in their fleets. ”A critical mass of coordinating city fire departments… could likely influence the design of future fire apparatus offered in the U.S.,” the report states.

Back in Baltimore, the city council quietly approved the proposed changes to the fire code in October. But the larger political conflagration over shared streets won’t be contained anytime soon. If nothing else, this report serves as a reminder to fire departments and transportation planners alike that, despite appearances, they have a common purpose: saving lives. Smaller trucks that do the job just as well would seem to accomplish everyone’s goals.

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