Addressing automakers, suppliers and the industry press on Jan. 14 in Dearborn, the nation’s top auto safety official declared sport utility vehicles too dangerous to drive. While this startling assessment may grab headlines, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
There was no mistaking the message behind the selective litany of crash statistics delivered by Jeffrey W. Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): Either automakers “voluntarily” redesign their products or mandates will issue forth from Washington.
The agency is concerned about the rollover risk of pick-up trucks, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and vans. This “light-truck” category accounted for 52 percent of the 10,647 fatal crashes involving a rollover in 2001, while constituting only 35 percent of the nation’s fleet of vehicles.
Physics dictates that light trucks are easier to roll than passenger vehicles, based on their track width relative to their center of gravity. But this “stability factor” is not necessarily predictive. As noted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, some light trucks with virtually identical stability factors have far different rollover rates in the real world.
For example, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner have indistinguishable stability factors, and received identical risk ratings from NHTSA. Yet, the fatality rate for the Grand Cherokee — 27 per million registered vehicles — is on a par with that of passenger cars, while the 4Runner’s fatality rate is 119.
The risk of a rollover also varies dramatically depending on driver behavior. More than 90 percent of rollovers occur after a driver loses control and runs the vehicle off the road. Moreover, the most lethal injuries result when occupants are ejected from the vehicle — a tragic reality reinforced by the fact that 72 percent of those killed in rollover accidents were not wearing a seatbelt. In other words, the NHTSA appears determined to hold automakers responsible for drivers’ negligence in protecting themselves.
In fact, there’s virtually no difference in overall fatality rates between vehicles in the light truck category and passenger cars. In 2001, for example, there were 1.2 fatalities involving light truck occupants per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared to 1.28 for cars. As for injuries, passenger cars posted a rate 28 percent worse than light trucks.
Any valid risk assessment must also weigh the safety benefits of light truck design. Only 14 percent of light-truck fatalities resulted from a side-impact collision in 2001 compared to 25 percent for passenger cars. Light truck occupants also are safer than passenger-car occupants in non-rollover, single-vehicle crashes.
There are significant costs to consider should the Bush administration impose new rollover regulations. Light trucks are Detroit’s most profitable vehicles, upon which a good many well-paying jobs depend. Reconfiguring the vehicle characteristics that consumers most demand could seriously jeopardize an already tentative auto industry.
And federal safety mandates can backfire. The “passive-restraint” requirements of the 1980s unleashed air bags that so far have crushed 104 children to death. And the vehicle downsizing forced on Detroit by NHTSA’s fuel economy standards increased highway deaths by 1,300 to 2,600 vehicle deaths per year.
A lower rollover rate would be most welcome, of course. But light truck safety has improved considerably in the past three decades, as models have evolved. The number of fatalities per year has fallen from 2.38 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1975 to 1.2 in 2001.
In fact, highway safety in general has dramatically improved despite a doubling of licensed drivers and twice as many vehicle registrations. The fatality rate hit a historic low of 1.51 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2001, down from 5.5 in 1966.
Considering all the factors associated with highway fatalities, the greatest safety benefit of all could be derived by hiding the car keys from grandpa and junior. The highest fatality rate — 43 per 100,000 in population — belongs to men aged 85 and older. Males aged 20-24 rank a close second, at 42. The fatality rates for women, on the other hand, are a mere 15 and 13 respectively. Overall, the auto accident fatality rate for men is 67 percent higher than it is for women.
Not even NHTSA would consider regulating the X chromosome in the name of highway safety. And yet seizing on SUVs as death machines hardly makes more sense.
(Diane Katz is director of science, environment and technology policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliation are cited.)