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Another salvo in the war over sport-utility vehicles was fired recently when Jeffrey Runge, a doctor who happens to head the Bush administration’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, declared that SUVs pose an “astounding” threat to their owners because of their proclivity to roll over and that strict new regulations may be in the offing.

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”The thing that I don’t understand is people, when they choose to buy a vehicle, they might go sit in it and say, ‘Gee, I feel safe,’ ” said Runge. “Well, sorry, but you know gut instinct is great for a lot of stuff, but it’s not very good for buying a safe automobile.”

Doctors may be great at a lot of stuff, but they’re not necessarily very good at assessing non-medical data. The public, in fact, is right and Dr. Runge is wrong.

It is true that SUVs are more dangerous to be in than most passenger vehicles if they roll over. But only three percent of all accidents involve rollovers. If you’re driving an SUV and get into an accident, most of the time it will involve hitting (or getting hit by) something. Accordingly, drivers are right not to worry too much about rolling over, particularly because it can be avoided simply by avoiding NASCAR racing practices when making sharp turns.

The fact that increased safety of SUVs in two-car collisions more than offsets the risk of rollovers was validated last October in a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and written by University of Michigan economist Michelle White. White got data regarding every automotive accident reported to the police between 1995-99.

She studied the records of cars, SUVS, pickups and minivans, large trucks and buses in three types of crashes: those involving two vehicles, a single vehicle and a vehicle striking a pedestrian or bicyclist. She then analyzed the information, controlling for seat belt use, urban and rural conditions, weather, time of day, negligence, age of the drivers, road type, speed, and number of vehicular occupants.

The result: SUVs saved between 1,023 and 1,225 lives every year. And the study found no statistically significant evidence that you are more likely to die if your car collided with an SUV than if it collided with another car. Interestingly enough, White found that light trucks were responsible for an unnecessary 2,260 deaths every year. Apparently, it’s the pickups and minivans — not the SUVs — that are the problem.

What makes this study remarkable is that it’s the first time that actual case-by-case crash data were used to examine SUV safety. Earlier studies used aggregated data that prevented analysts from controlling for all the relevant factors that might contaminate the findings. Any statistician will tell you that the case-by-case data are much preferred for this very reason. And White is the first analyst to put the relevant data through the paces.

A skeptic might counter that the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded last July that SUVs were responsible for an unnecessary 2,000 deaths a year. Doesn’t the consensus of those experts trump the findings of the economist?

The problem is that the NRC study was based on a review of the published literature and did not include the White study, which was published three months later. The NRC simply assessed the findings of various studies that used the less persuasive data approach.

In addition, the White study was not financed by the auto industry. It was the Institute of Civil Justice at the RAND Corp. that supported White’s study.

The anti-SUV jihad may continue to roll on, but it cannot credibly do so with an anti-safety argument in tow. Dr. Runge should check the facts before he jumps on this rickety bandwagon.

— Jerry Taylor is director of natural-resource studies at the Cato Institute.



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