Lifted Trucks: Are These Badass Metal Beasts Misunderstood?
Are lifted mods making your truck dangerous? Or does the added height provide extra safety? We consider both sides of the ongoing debate.
“Lifted Pickup Trucks Are Really Dangerous!” This is the headline that nearly jumped off the screen when Jalopnik ran it a few years back. Now, generally, we would laugh off such a sensationalistic statement. However, its author, respected auto journalist Doug DeMuro, expertly backs up his assertion with solid facts, educated opinions, and common sense: “So, why is a lifted pickup truck so dangerous?” DeMuro asks. “…Once the already-huge truck is lifted to an even huger height, it goes from ‘somewhat unsafe’ to ‘incredibly scary.‘ Not for the people in the truck, mind you. For the people…in normal cars, whose head is now directly in line with the truck’s front bumper.”
Countering Jalopnik‘s take on the safety of not necessarily lifted trucks but “huge” trucks is a 2015 study conducted by the University of Buffalo. The research included a retrospective study of 360 vehicle models from 2010 to 2012 based on insurance losses tracked by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The U.B. study concluded that “very large pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles – which are heavier than others – had the lowest frequency of personal-injury claims.” It noted that “for every 1,000-pound increase in overall vehicle weight, a vehicle would statistically result in 19 percent fewer injuries during a crash.”
The study also found that “subcompact and compact cars had the highest frequency of personal-injury claims.” In other words, the university study discovered what most truck owners already knew: Lifted, heavier trucks add safety for its drivers, likely at the risk of fellow drivers on the road who may not be in an equally well-protected and/or lifted vehicle.
‘Very large pickup trucks and SUVs had the lowest frequency of personal-injury claims.’
So, now that you just bought your dream truck and it’s time to modify it with new tires and a suspension lift, should you take the gamble? Afterall, will these modifications make your truck more or less dangerous in an accident? And at what cost? Let’s explore the situation.
Before we begin, however, we need to state the obvious: We love lifted trucks. Yet, we can’t help but wonder about their potential safety, or potential lack of it when involved in accidents. Many of these SEMA-ready rigs feature ride-heights that vastly exceed their stock setting, adding six, eight or even 12 inches more to the ride height. This mod, of course, negates many of the new safety technologies, like forward collision avoidance, crash crumple zones and air bag deployment. So, does higher equal more dangerous? It’s a very complex question.
Safety tests conducted by the respected IIHS and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) don’t factor in aftermarket ride heights. So, we have to depend on real-world crash stories to give us an idea of what would happen. For instance, in a 2015 accident reported in Canada’s National Post, a 53-year-old Canadian school teacher, Michelle Taylor, was killed when a lifted truck, whose teenage driver fell asleep at the wheel, drifted into her lane, crushing the cabin with its massive tires. The lifted truck driver was reportedly unscathed.
‘The lifted truck kit was the smartest thing he could have done…He is given the biggest possible thing on the road so he doesn’t get hurt, and sure enough, he never got hurt.’
“From the [teenager’s] dad’s perspective, [the lifted truck kit] was the smartest thing he could have done,” says the victim’s husband, James Taylor, of the decision to equip an inexperienced driver with a “monster truck.” Interestingly, while conveying the danger of lifted trucks, Taylor also references how they can also ensure safety: “‘…I have an irresponsible young lad who’s wanting to drive, I’m going to give him the biggest possible thing on the road so he doesn’t get hurt,’ and sure enough, he never got hurt.”
The National Post shares Taylor’s sentiment about how lifted trucks are safer, but only to the driver, and at the risk of fellow drivers on the road. “Canadians like big cars because they keep their occupants alive and, thanks to a new era of low gas prices, they’re buying them in record numbers. In the first half of 2015, pickup trucks claimed the first, second and fourth spots for best-selling vehicles in Canada.”
However, “big cars kill,” asserts the National Post. “They kill because their bumpers don’t line up with sedans and station wagons. They kill because…they’re heavier. For every [approximately 1,000 pounds] added to the weight of a car, a vehicle becomes 40 per cent more likely to turn an otherwise survivable crash into a fatal collision.”
The publication backs up its “big cars kill” statement by providing some stats from a study conducted by the University of Buffalo (New York’s) medical researchers, who found “when an SUV hits a car, even if the car has a better crash test rating, its driver was still four times more likely to wind up dead in the collision.”
“In frontal crashes, SUVs tend to ride over shorter passenger vehicles…crushing the occupant of the passenger car,” said the study’s author Dietrich Jehle, a professor of emergency medicine.
There is also this story from Florida’s Flagler Live of a Ford F-350 with what looks to be a lift kit and oversized tires involved in a head-on collision with a Jeep Wrangler. The Ford F-350 driver and passenger had minor injuries while the Jeep Wrangler driver died and her two toddler children were listed in critical condition. A very tragic accident. Locals from the Korona, Florida area where the accident happened have posted their responses
Posted below the Flagler Live coverage are in-the-know replies left by locals from the Korona, Florida, area where the accident happened. One poster who goes by the moniker “Tulip” had a decidedly anti-lift trucks response to assertions that the drivers involved had to have been speeding over the 35 speed limit on the road they were traveling.
“They wouldn’t have had to be speeding,” says Tulip. “The trucks and the SUVs with the big oversize tires can hit a sedan and completely destroy it and kill the driver. I have a sedan, and I’ve had one of those oversize-tire vehicles parked in the lot right in front of me, so our vehicles were front to front. That truck was so high that his hood and engine would go right through my front window.
They should not be allowed on the road. Someone that drives that type of vehicle gets a sense of security and doesn’t drive as carefully because they are bigger. Unfortunately, the little sedan driver gets killed.”
This suggestion to ban “oversize-tire vehicles” on our roads fails to take into account that lifted trucks are about so much more than merely making a truck look even more badass. Lifted trucks serve a specific function that other trucks do not.
From the FTE Forums: Putting 40″ Tires on an 8″ Lift?
“Many people use such vehicles to navigate rough work sites or hunting in the mud swamps of Florida,” comments “Outsider” below the story.
“Oversized tires are not the cause of this — lack of paying attention is,” writes fellow Floridian “Bre.” “How do you figure that his TIRES were the cause of the issue? And like others have commented, it makes the truck bigger?? Is that a problem? So, maybe next we should BAN Semis because they are TOO large for our roadways and they can kill someone if they have impact. Holy sh*t, these are some stupid comments,” adds “Bre” in resignation.
Are Lifted Trucks Legal?
Gruesome accidents like those previously mentioned have led many states to impose height restrictions on trucks and focusing on the front and rear bumper height. The idea behind concentrating on a truck’s bumpers is simple: Hitting a solid object, like a bumper, is better in a crash since the energy can be absorbed and mitigated through safety equipment.
Every state has different requirements for bumper heights. For instance, Idaho focuses on Gross Vehicle Weight Rating and vehicle class to determine maximum bumper height. Indiana says the bumper can’t be higher than three inches more than when the vehicle was built. Finally, there are states like Iowa that simply state: “Modification of bumper height is permitted.”
This lack of consistency can be maddening for lifted-truck owners. Your truck might be legal in one state yet when you move to another, it isn’t legal any longer.
‘I live two blocks from my local police department…and I’ve never been hassled [for having a lifted truck]. In fact, I’ve been complimented.’
Of course, this situation raises the legal problems of driving a tall, lifted truck in a state where it is illegal and being involved in an accident where someone is injured. In fact, the topic has been discussed ad infinitum in the Ford Truck Enthusiasts forums.
“I have some concerns driving a vehicle that may be legal in Arizona and may be illegally lifted in a different state, say California,” writes FTE forums member Customz. “Will the police warn, ticket, cite or impound a truck whose frame/headlights/bumpers are too high? Can they issue a repair order? Will they leave me alone?”
“In California, there isn’t a set limit to lifting your truck,” says FN250. “I called CHP before ordering my lift and I was told your headlights had to be between 22 and 54 inches. They never mentioned anything about frame height. After doing some investigating, I found that for vehicles in the category of 7,501 to 10,000 pounds GVWR – frame height on the lowest point of the vehicle is 31 inches.
“A buddy of mine has an SD with 16″ on 44s,” continues FN250. “The one thing he told me was he usually got busted for mud flaps. Never once busted for frame height or headlights, but the rather petty fix-it ticket for mud flaps.[Plus,] I live two blocks from my local police department…and I’ve never been hassled [for having a lifted truck]. In fact, I’ve been complimented.”
Should You Lift Your Truck?
All of this sounds like you shouldn’t lift your truck, no? Well, not so according to Cris Payne, owner of Truck Guru and the professional builder of many trucks seen each year at SEMA. Payne says he feels much safer in his truck than in other vehicles. Also, there are things you can do to help protect yourself and your truck, like adding new, larger bumpers.
“Big bumpers give me a sense of armor,” says Payne. “Granted, other drivers who crash into them usually take the damage because they are running into things like hitches or HD bumpers. I feel safe in mine. Whiplash will happen in any vehicle, especially in a rear-end or rollover crash.”
Payne isn’t alone in his thinking. Lifted-truck owners often mention that they feel an added sense of security inside their vehicle and better protected against other drivers. All of this begs the question: Are you making your vehicle safer at the sacrifice of others?
Unfortunately, the lack of statistics and crash tests means there is no definitive answer to whether a lifted truck is safer in an accident. However, the real question on safety is really whether those crashes are safer for the driver or for the people involved in the accident. It seems pretty clear if you are concerned about your safety, a lifted truck could be the answer.