Playing Games With SUV Safety
by Bonner Cohen
Consumers are constantly
reminded to "read the fine print" before spending their
hard-earned cash on items ranging from breakfast cereals to mutual
funds. Being on guard against misleading advertising is sound
advice; no one wants to be hoodwinked.
That same caution
should also apply to government reports. Their findings warrant
the same level of scrutiny we should give to our purchases. No
less than salesmen, bureaucrats have agendas. A case in point
is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
which seems determined to stoke the fires of fear on the subject
of vehicle safety.
When in April 2003
NHTSA released preliminary estimates of highway traffic deaths
for 2002, it reported ominously that fatalities were up from
the previous year. The culprit, according to NHTSA, was none
other than the SUV, the highly popular vehicle adherents of political
correctness love to hate. NHTSA's "findings" were widely
reported in the media, and NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffery Runge
even allowed that he wouldn't allow his daughter to ride in a
But later came another NHTSA report, using more complete data
than were available for its earlier study, showing that -- surprise
-- driving in America is actually safer than ever. While the
number of traffic deaths in 2002 rose in absolute terms from
the previous year, the fatality rate per vehicle mile traveled
dropped -- continuing a trend that has been evident for over
three decades.2 No one should be surprised that the
number of highway fatalities rose slightly; after all, America's
population is increasing, as is the number of vehicles and the
miles driven on our roads. This is why the fatalities per vehicle
mile traveled is the most accurate measurement of auto safety.3
What's more, buried
deep in NHTSA's data is the truth about which vehicles are the
safest to drive. By far the riskiest vehicles on the road are
very small cars. Their driver fatality rate per billion vehicle
miles from 1996 to 2000 in 1996 to 2000 models was 11.56. Small
cars followed with a rate of 7.85. Large SUVs, by contrast, are
among the safest vehicles around, finishing right behind minivans
and large cars with a rate of 3.79.4
Common sense tells
us why this is so. In any collision -- whether with a tree, a
telephone pole or another vehicle -- the laws of physics apply.
The heavier the vehicle is, the better protected are its occupants,
and the more likely they are to survive an accident.
Dale Hernden of
Saginaw, Mich. recently told the Wall Street Journal that his
wife's GM Yukon was rear-ended by a tanker truck going 40 mph
while she was waiting at a red light. The force of the collision
crushed the SUV almost up to the back seat, but his wife escaped
serious injury or death thanks to her vehicle's study construction.
His wife's close brush with death taught Mr. Hernden an important
safety lesson: If NHTSA's Dr. Runge and other opponents of SUVs
had their way, he noted, "she'd have been driving a Yugo
and I'd be a widower."5
While it is true
that SUVs -- with their higher center of gravity -- are more
prone to rollovers than other vehicles, rollovers account for
only 2.5 percent of all crashes in the U.S. And two-thirds of
those deaths could have been prevented, if the victims had been
wearing seat belts.7
It pays to buckle up.
Small cars, of course,
do fare poorly in collisions with SUVs and other larger vehicles.
But they also don't fare well in collisions with stationary objects
like trees and bridge abutments. Automotive safety is too important
to trivialize through fashionable SUV-bashing. We're safer when
we stick to the facts.
# # #
Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow of The National Center for
Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Sam Kazman, "Fuel
Economy Push Gets in Way of Safety," Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
October 21, 2003.
3. "Sport-Utes Remain Safer Than Traffic Agency Suggests,"
Detroit News, November 2, 2003.
4. David Kiley, "Study: Lighter Cars Mean More Deaths, USA
Today, October 15, 2003, p. 1-B.
5. Dale Hernden, letter, Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2003,
6. Dee-Ann Durbin, "Safety of SUVs Questioned," Washington
Times, October 17, 2003, p. G-14; interview with Eron Shosteck,
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, November 7, 2003.