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November 13, 2003

Driven To Distraction

By

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 misleading.

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 safer vehicle?

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 nationwide.

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 crashes.

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 car-safety messages.

Charli 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

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