Driven To Distraction
Car commercials these days make a big deal out of government safety
ratings. But do these ratings present an accurate picture?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to the
applause of its congressional overseers, puts the pedal to the
metal with information based on frontal, side and rollover crash
tests. Results are published in ratings ranging from one to five
stars. (Five is best.) But the information is somewhat
For example, suppose a larger vehicle gets five stars for frontal
and side protection but only two stars in the rollover rating,
while a small car gets four stars across the board. Which is the
Forgive us for being starry-eyed here. In the frontal tests, the
star ratings are based on vehicles of equal size striking each
other. On real roads, there are many sizes of vehicles -- and
starkly different crash outcomes.
The reality is that SUVs, minivans, pickups (and large cars) are
the safest choices. Forget the star ratings -- insurance company
claims and other data from real crashes show that larger vehicles
have the lowest fatality rates.
Because these safer vehicles sell like hotcakes as passenger car
substitutes, much to the dismay of self-appointed arbiters of
choice, the public has been besieged with harangues about how
they're too big, too dangerous when they strike other vehicles and
too thirsty at the gas pump. Enraged by the workings of the free
market, domestic terrorists have even sabotaged SUVs on dealer lots
The laws of physics dictate that vehicle size and weight play a
significant role in protecting occupants in a crash. Do you pay a
fuel premium for this extra margin of safety? Sure. But it's a cost
most pay willingly for increased safety, better comfort and more
versatility. And thanks largely to consumer demand, the fuel
economy of SUVs and pickups climbed 75 percent over the last decade
and continues to improve.
Unfortunately, NHTSA plays into the hands of SUV critics by not
giving the public the overall safety picture for SUVs and light
trucks -- and by emphasizing their performance in rollover
Rollovers are serious crashes that produce disproportionately high
fatality and injury tolls, regardless of the type of vehicle
involved. When an SUV occupant dies, it usually results from a
rollover in which the passenger didn't use a safety belt.
But rollovers account for just 3 percent of all crashes. And most
of those killed in rollovers were occupants of small cars, not
SUVs. In frontal crashes, which are responsible for most deaths and
injuries, pickups, minivans and SUVs perform extremely well. They
also do well in side crashes.
Government studies by NHTSA confirm another fact that most
consumers don't know: Shrinking the size and weight of vehicles to
meet fuel economy mandates has accounted for more than 2,000 deaths
and 20,000 serious injuries every year since 1975.
That may be changing, finally. A just-released NHTSA study of the
safety implications of vehicle size and weight concluded that 1,000
more lives could be lost each year if federal fuel economy mandates
force even more weight reductions to most vehicles.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry group, said
this study "puts to rest all of the nonsense that smaller, lighter
vehicles can be made safer than bigger, heavier vehicles." That's
the safety fact to know before purchasing a new vehicle.
Consider also that the traffic fatality rate -- the risk of death
when increases in vehicles, drivers and miles traveled annually is
factored -- has been declining for three decades. It's now the
lowest in modern history.
So, are the reams of government and other "safety information" on
buying a new car helpful? NHTSA asked that question in a 1986
survey of consumer attitudes. They found information overload. One
respondent said, "I think the information they give you is almost
overwhelming … Pretty soon you're just saying, 'Wait a
minute. I can't handle it anymore.'"
Even back in 1986, consumers understood auto safety almost
intuitively. They reported "a belief that size and weight are the
principal determinants" of crash outcome. Millions of tax dollars
could have been saved if NHTSA simply emphasized what the public
knew instead of pushing them toward a galaxy of confusing and
conflicting star ratings.
The single most important safety message for consumers: The largest
of the SUVs (ironically, the ones being most criticized) have the
lowest fatality rates. Not that you're likely to see that in any
Coon is a senior analyst for energy and environment policy
at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based
independent research institution.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire