Recently, I woke up to 34 notifications from Facebook related to a conversation/debate amongst automotive journalists about an article criticizing the modern pickup truck size. This isn’t an uncommon thing, and the argument has been repeated a few times during the past year. Here’s what’s going on.
The debated article appearing in Bloomberg further pushes along arguments started by Dan Neil at the Wall Street Journal (subscription required). In Neil’s article, and now this Bloomberg article, the premise is simple: The growth of pickup truck size is dangerous, damages the environment, makes a political statement, displays arrogance and, finally, is complete overkill for transportation needs.
Yeah, you could say they aren’t big fans of pickup trucks.
The Bloomberg piece actually has several inaccuracies — including a flawed statement the IRS is pushing businesses to buy a 3/4-ton truck over a 1/2-ton as well as the proclamation the growth of pickup trucks has lead to more pedestrian accidents — even though trucks have done a lot to improve safety in terms of pedestrian detection and crash testing.
With regard to the latter point, yes, it is true road fatalities did increase last year, but I’ll argue it wasn’t the pickup truck’s size at fault. Rather, as stated in the Washington Post, less traffic equaled people driving at higher speeds, causing more deaths according to transportation and law enforcement officials.
Then, there is the excellent piece by fellow journalist Mike Satterfield of the Gentleman Racer who read a government report showing the further inaccuracy of more accidents caused by big trucks and SUVs.
“According to the Governors Highway Safety Association SUVs and Trucks are twice as likely to kill a pedestrian if they are involved in an accident, but passenger cars are involved in a higher percentage of pedestrian fatalities than SUVs and pickup trucks combined,” Satterfield wrote. “2019 data showed that 2,264 fatalities involved a passenger car, while 1,070 involved SUVs and 889 involved pickup trucks.”
Maybe passenger cars have gotten too big?
Why have pickup trucks grown so large?
One of the more fascinating parts of this debate deals with the fact these journalists never seem to seek the reason why pickup truck size has grown. Rather, it is a knee-jerk reaction followed with: OMG they are so LARGE!
Frankly, it’s rather odd to freak out now over their size when trucks have been growing since the 1950s.
If you truly want to see how trucks have grown in size, just go to a car show. You can visually see their height increase from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s.
The really interesting part is this: Trucks haven’t grown that much, although crew cab pickups have become more popular since they were first introduced in the 1960s. Yep, 1960s, around 60 years ago.
As you can see with the Travellette pictured above, trucks haven’t always been the regular cab varieties with low beds like the 1960s and 1970s era Chevy C10 pickups.
Many critics of modern full-size trucks point to these mid-’60s Chevy trucks as the perfect comparison example on how trucks have grown and how they are now unsafe. The thinking is you can see so much better out of these 1960s trucks, and their smaller size means they are safer for pedestrians. Plus, this is really all the truck you truly need.
If only any of those assumptions were true.
I’ll address safety in a minute, but let’s get back to why trucks have grown. I really want to take some of these journalists into the country with one of these older trucks, like my 1962 C10, and show they why trucks have grown. The reasons are pretty practical.
First, the buying market for trucks has grown — literally and figuratively. People either have forgotten or were born after these 1960s trucks went out of fashion, so let’s do a quick recap. These trucks quickly felt cramped, were unsafe for the driver and passengers and had zero cab room for more than two average men. Trust me; try driving one around with two guys, two coffee cups, work gloves, coats, tools and a bed filled with lumber. It can be done, but, um, let’s just say it’ll be cozy.
Now, with more people of various physical dimensions buying trucks, they’ve had to grow to keep up with consumer demand. This largely meant headroom and width.
A quick comparison tells us a 1990s Chevy Silverado 1500 was 76.8 inches wide and a 2020 Chevy Silverado 1500 is 81.2 inches wide according to Chevrolet. So, about 5 inches wider. Not a heck of a lot.
Length? An extended cab from 1990 Chevy Silverado 1500 with a 6-foot, 5-inch bed has a length of 212.6 inches. Today, an extended cab pickup with a 5-foot, 6-inch bed has an overall length 231.8 inches. This means, they have cut a foot off the bed, roughly, and added 20 inches or so for interior leg room. This means a modern truck is about a foot and a half longer. Again, not that much considering the overall length of a truck, however, it does mean it is that much longer and won’t easily fit in a garage anymore.
The real beef is about height, and this seems aimed squarely at heavy-duty trucks.
Again, looking at the specs this time from Wikipedia and the Chevrolet media site, the numbers aren’t that different. A 2000 Chevy Silverado 3/4-ton has a height of 77.4 inches while a 2020 Chevy Silverado 3/4-ton is 79.82 inches — a whole 2 inches different.
Visually, it looks like more, right? Sure it does.
The reality, though, is the trucks haven’t gotten much larger — it is how they are now designed with bigger grilles and larger standard tires.
Also, off-road editions with factory lifts are now extremely popular.
Another thing not mentioned is bed height. Bed sides are really the one area where things have gotten out of control and most truck guys will not argue this point.
Fact is, beds are really hard to access these days since they have grown so tall. However, this comes with a push back in that the taller height means the ability to carry more items in the bed.
For example, let’s say a load of mulch. With a 2020 Silverado 3/4-ton, I could make one trip to the landscape company to load up versus the 1970s truck which would take multiple trips for the same load.
Mulch is just one example. You could replace that with luggage, bicycles for the kids and other items people carry. The taller sides means these items are stored better and more safely than before, when things would dangle outside the bed.
What has changed? Style really. Customers have been lifting their trucks for years, putting on bigger tires and swapping out the grilles to mirror their personal tastes. Automakers and dealers took notice. Now, you can walk into any dealer showroom across the country and find lifted trucks complete with bigger tires ready to purchase and roll into your loan.
These lifted trucks with bigger wheels and more pronounced styling are getting the attention of the critics. However, are they not as safe?
The facts about pickup truck safety
Let’s get to the facts about the safety rather than making wild accusations that their growth makes them unsafe.
The argument from the growth standpoint is their size creates massive blind spots and makes visibility harder from the cabin. From an outsider’s perspective this is true, yet it isn’t really that truthful.
Inside the cabin, the new trucks are filled with all sorts of safety equipment making them, arguably, safer to drive than before (crash testing is another item).
Behind the wheel, the driver has a host of cameras, sensors, blind spot alerts, rear cross-traffic alerts and pedestrian crash detection. Many of these systems now come standard in full-size trucks, and moving forward we will see even more safety equipment added to trucks.
The whole argument you can’t see as well is also largely overstated. Automakers have done a lot in recent years to shape the hood and grille to increase visibility out the front, plus they have moved mirrors out of the way to improve visibility out the size. Basically, those complaints were warranted at one time, and automakers have responded accordingly.
Now, back to the trucks I own. I personally own a 1962 Chevy C10 and I bought a 2021 Ford F-150 for this outlet for a year to test out. While some will always argue this point, I can tell you I have better visibility in my 2021 F-150 than I do in my 1962 C10. The A-pillar is smaller in the 2021, the driver’s side window is larger, and I sit taller in the cabin, which allows me to see better. Go sit in any classic truck, and you’ll find the same thing.
So, the idea the larger pickup truck size makes it less safe is complete bunk. That is just people making assumptions and using their bias against trucks to proclaim this to be true when it is not.
Oh, and critics will point out trucks are really hard to park and how you see people making several maneuvers to get it just right. This isn’t necessarily due to them being harder to drive — although they do require a different set of driving skills — this is due to the parking cameras allowing you to be OCD about how well you parked between the lines.
The bottom line on pickup truck size
The rest of the arguments from critics usually devolve into discussing the political nature of trucks (those darn rednecks flying flags), environmental impact (trucks pollute less and get better fuel economy than ever) as well as how “scary” they look (ok, buttercup, calm down).
When you step back and look at it throughout the years, automakers are really catering to their customer and offering a wide range of different styles, sizes and capabilities. Yes, you can still buy a regular cab (if you can find one), and no, not everyone needs a Trail Boss off-road pickup to drive in the city. Yet, why do we criticize consumers for the choices they make?
For me, I had a choice between a truck and an a minivan for my family. It wasn’t a hard choice — the truck gives me so much more utility for my dollar. It was a no brainer.
What do you think? Are the critics right?