Commentary

Save a Life, Buy an SUV

“SUVs are hazardous to your health,” says Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook advises consumers not to buy SUVs. In an ABC News report, Peter Jennings says the “government is grappling with what to do about the threat that sport utility vehicles represent to lesser vehicles in accidents.” And CBS’ Dan Rather reports that SUVs are considered a “killer on the road.”

Are SUVs really the highway menace portrayed by activists and the media? According to the latest research, the answer is no.

In the current issue of Regulation, published by the Cato Institute, Douglas Coate and James VanderHoff of Rutgers University examine the relationship between traffic fatalities and “light truck” use from 1994 through 1997. In their initial analysis they found a positive correlation between light truck registrations and motor vehicle fatalities: The greater the number of light trucks in a state per licensed driver, the greater the fatality rate per licensed driver.

But when Coate and VanderHoff examined the data more carefully, they noticed that both light truck use and motor vehicle fatalities are more common in rural states. And sure enough, once they accounted for the characteristics of rural states, not only did the positive relationship between light truck use and fatalities disappear, it became negative.

In other words, more SUVs mean fewer traffic deaths.

All told, the United States has experienced a nearly 50 percent drop in traffic fatalities per vehicle mile traveled during the past two decades. SUV critics are quick to dismiss the notion that larger vehicles deserve any credit for the decline. They point to stiffer penalties for drunk driving, increased seat belt use, the reintroduction of the 55 mph speed limit in some states, and safety-enhancing technological changes. But even after controlling for all those factors, Coate and VanderHoff find that SUVs have helped reduce fatalities.

By the numbers, they find that the 5 percent increase in light truck purchases from 1994-97 has reduced single vehicle fatalities per driver by 7.5 percent and multiple vehicle fatalities per driver by 2 percent. That translates into about 2,000 lives saved.

But the findings were too much for some public-safety guardians. Claybrook, for example, dismissed the study as “poppycock” and “statistical gymnastics.” She has not challenged the study’s methodology or offered any other substantive critique. She simply can’t accept the notion that if more people drive big, sturdy vehicles, fewer people will die in traffic accidents.

Fortunately, Americans are paying no attention. They continue to buy SUVs and other light trucks in record numbers. They know instinctively what academic research is just now beginning to prove: SUVs make America’s roads safer.