Save a Life, Buy an SUV

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“SUVs are hazardous to your health,” says Clarence Ditlow, director of theCenter for Auto Safety. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook advisesconsumers 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 utilityvehicles represent to lesser vehicles in accidents.” And CBS’ Dan Ratherreports 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, DouglasCoate and James VanderHoff of Rutgers University examine the relationshipbetween traffic fatalities and “light truck” use from 1994 through 1997. Intheir initial analysis they found a positive correlation between light truckregistrations and motor vehicle fatalities: The greater the number of lighttrucks in a state per licensed driver, the greater the fatality rate perlicensed driver.

But when Coate and VanderHoff examined the data more carefully, they noticedthat both light truck use and motor vehicle fatalities are more common inrural states. And sure enough, once they accounted for the characteristicsof rural states, not only did the positive relationship between light truckuse 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 intraffic fatalities per vehicle mile traveled during the past two decades.SUV critics are quick to dismiss the notion that larger vehicles deserve anycredit for the decline. They point to stiffer penalties for drunk driving,increased seat belt use, the reintroduction of the 55 mph speed limit insome states, and safety-enhancing technological changes. But even aftercontrolling for all those factors, Coate and VanderHoff find that SUVs havehelped reduce fatalities.

By the numbers, they find that the 5 percent increase in light truckpurchases from 1994-97 has reduced single vehicle fatalities per driver by7.5 percent and multiple vehicle fatalities per driver by 2 percent. Thattranslates 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 anyother substantive critique. She simply can’t accept the notion that if morepeople drive big, sturdy vehicles, fewer people will die in trafficaccidents.

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