Playing Games With SUV Safety Statistics

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 rollover-prone SUV.1

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 [email protected].


1. Sam Kazman, “Fuel Economy Push Gets in Way of Safety,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 21, 2003.

2. Ibid.

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, p. A-21.

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.

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