Are SUVs more dangerous?

by Russ Roberts on April 29, 2004

in Risk and Safety

Reuters reports that the roads are getting more dangerous. The headline: Highway Deaths Hit 13-Year High in 2003. I was surprised when I saw the headline. Usually the trend over time is toward more safety. What might explain such an increase? A reduction in enforcing safety or speeding laws, maybe. A change in demographic composition—more younger drivers who tend to drive more recklessly relatively to older drivers.

The article implies that the increase is due to more SUVs on the road and their propensity to roll over, interviewing Jeffery Runge, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration :

Runge, an emergency room physician, has also raised the potential dangers of light trucks sharing the road with smaller passenger cars and has addressed the propensity of SUVs to roll.

Sport utility deaths went up by 456 with more than two- thirds of victims not wearing seat belts, the safety agency said.

“A large part of the problem is keeping all four wheels on the roadway,” Runge told reporters about the rollover propensity of SUVs. Some manufacturers have addressed the problem but Runge wants more safety changes. For instance, his agency is proposing a standard to improve the strength of vehicle roofs to reduce rollover deaths.

Cars have a slight edge in sales over light trucks, which include SUVs, pickups and minivans. But SUV sales rose more than 10 percent last year.

Consumer and safety groups have long targeted SUVs as unsafe, and are pressuring the government to mandate tougher design changes. SUV safety and other provisions are included in highway legislation awaiting final consideration in Congress.

“Affordable, feasible safety improvements could help prevent the rising death toll in SUVs,” said Joan Claybrook, president of consumer group Public Citizen.

But earlier in the article, the real cause of the rise in highway deaths is given, though it is hidden a bit from sight:

Despite the increase in the annual death count, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled remained constant at 1.5 deaths because more people were on the road.

So the real cause of the increase in deaths is more people on the road. The riskiness of the roads hasn’t changed at all. The roads are no more dangerous or safer than they were before. And SUVs are irrelevant to safety. SUV sales are up 10% but there’s no change in the death rate. If anything, the crude data suggest that SUVs are no more dangerous and no safer than other cars.

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