More people were killed last year in
rollover-type accidents involving pickups and SUVs than in previous
years: statistically speaking, about 1.51 deaths per 100 million
vehicle miles traveled.1 But despite alarmist
reportage by the major media and SUV-haters in the punditocracy,
this is still pretty low by historical standards of 5.5 million
deaths per 100 million vehicles miles traveled in the mid-1960s,
and 1.75 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1992.2
Moreover, it's rarely mentioned in anti-SUV
rants that rollover-type accidents account for just 2.5 percent
of all crashes. Or that the actual number of people killed in
these kinds of accidents, while impressive-sounding in terms
of percentage increase from year to year - up 4.9 percent from
2001 to 2002 - actually represents a relatively small number:
10,626 deaths in 2002 vs. 10,130 in 2001, an increase of 496
In a nation of 300 million people with
some 16.6 million new vehicles sold every year,4 half
of them SUVs and pickups, that's hardly an epidemic of rollover-type
crashes. (For comparison: 3,529 people drowned in swimming pool
accidents in 1999 alone, according to the Centers for Disease
There are also vastly more SUVs and pickups
on the roads today than ten or 20 years ago, both in terms of
actual numbers and as a percentage of the nation's vehicle fleet.
In fact, this year SUVs, pickups and other "light truck"
sales will constitute a majority of all new vehicle sales.5
It stands to reason that the more SUVs
there are on the road, the greater the number of accidents involving
them there will be.
Few news stories about the supposedly
dramatic rise in fatal accidents involving "dangerous"
and "unstable" SUVs mention these facts, though - leaving
the average American with the false impression that vehicular
carnage is at historic high levels - and that SUVs and pickups
are far more risky to drive than they really are.
While no increase in accidents or fatalities
of any sort is a good thing, some perspective is clearly in order.
In the 97.5 percent of accidents that
are not rollovers, SUVs are safer to be in than the typical passenger
car. In side, frontal and rear-end collisions, for example, the
typical 4,500-lb. SUV offers as much as two to three times more
protection against impact forces than a 3,000-lb. compact/mid-sized
sedan. Also, an SUV with four wheel drive is less likely to be
involved in an accident in the first place, or suffer loss of
control in certain conditions, such as heavy rain or snow. And
59 percent of those killed in SUV rollover accidents, according
to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, likely
would have survived had they been wearing seatbelts.6
Viewed in their totality, the facts indicate
that SUVs are more than reasonably safe; indeed, when driven
responsibly, their overall safety is demonstrably superior to
that of the typical compact and mid-sized passenger car.
Unfortunately, as SUVs have become popular
mass-market vehicles, instead of the specialty/"niche"
vehicles they once were, more people who don't really understand
SUVs or have much respect for what they are built to do and not
do are driving them to work every day.
Some buy SUVs because of their rugged
looks, higher ride or ability to carry many groceries. But fewer
than five percent of all SUV owners ever take their SUVs off-road,
according to auto industry surveys.
Thus we have the problem of a large and
growing group of people who buy SUVs - vehicles specifically
built to handle rugged, uneven terrain, deep mud, snow, etc.
- but who almost never actually use the off-road capability built
into these vehicles. Yet the capabilities built into most SUVs
to handle off-road conditions are precisely the source of the
SUVs' weaknesses, if driven aggressively - and the root cause
of the "rollover epidemic."
A higher center of gravity - when the
vehicle's mass is well above the ground - can make an SUV more
"tipsy," but this only becomes a serious problem if
the driver pushes the SUV into corners, makes violent lane changes
or turns at high speed. Mud and snow-rated tires such as are
typically found on SUVs are great for the conditions they were
designed to deal with, but offer less lateral grip if the vehicle
is thrown into a hard turn. Weight transfer is another area in
which SUVs differ from passenger cars. Under hard braking, acceleration
and cornering, an SUV's weight shifts more dramatically, unsettling
the vehicle. This can be a particular problem during a tire failure
at high speed (70-plus) as occurred during the recent Ford Explorer/Firestone
Many SUV drivers have gotten themselves
into trouble by assuming that an exit ramp or bend posted at
35 or 45 miles per hour (mph) is perfectly safe to take at five
to ten mph over the posted limit because their car can handle
the same curve at that speed with no difficulty. But the car's
strengths in cornering are the SUV's weakness - just as the car
would be in trouble in deep snow or attempting to cross a stream.
However, it's not the SUV's fault when it's pushed beyond its
limits and expected to handle a situation it wasn't designed
for any more than it's a "design defect" of the average
passenger car that it can't scrabble up dirt-covered backwoods
trails very well.
Yet the emphasis of an increasingly vocal
group of anti-SUV activists is to blame SUVs first, put out incomplete
information about their safety record, and demand new regulations7
- not to urge that SUV drivers be educated to drive their vehicles
appropriately and with respect for their built-in limitations
in high-speed, fast-cornering situations.
The auto industry is doing some good
by building more on-road-friendly SUVs called "crossovers"
that are built on car-type platforms that are lower to the ground
and which therefore ride, handle and behave more like passenger
cars, even though they still look like burly SUVs on the outside.
But there's only so much idiot-proofing
that can be done. People who insist on driving their SUVs at
80 mph and weaving through dense traffic - then taking off-ramps
posted at 35 mph at 50 mph - are going to get into trouble no
matter what the federal government forces the automakers to do.
But it's unfair (and counterproductive)
to blame the vehicles and those who build them - or to force
responsible SUV drivers to pay more for new technology and equipment,
such as factory-installed stability control systems, etc. that
are designed to protect the willfully irresponsible from themselves.
# # #
Amy Ridenour is president and
Eric Peters a senior fellow of The National Center for Public
Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may
be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.