Evidence Contradicts NHTSA Claim of Growing SUV Risk

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Richard Morrison, 202.331.2273


Washington, D.C., October 6, 2003—Last April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its preliminary estimates of highway fatalities for 2002.  Its press release at the time painted a gloomy picture of “grim statistics:” that overall deaths were up from the year before, and this was supposedly due mostly to rollovers in SUVs and pickups.  News reports quickly picked up the theme.  The Washington Post’s headline read “Highway Deaths Up … SUV Rollovers Are Major Factor”, while the New York Times declared, “SUVs Take a Hit, as Traffic Deaths Rise.”

Tomorrow, as NHTSA unveils its expanded rollover test program, the Competitive Enterprise Institute wants to point out that SUVs have a safety performance record as good if not better than most passenger cars.  Moreover, more recent and more complete data from the agency and elsewhere show that highway safety is actually improving:

·                     While traffic deaths in 2002 increased in absolute terms over 2001, the occupant fatality rate per vehicle mile traveled (VMT) actually improved.  The rate fell from 1.52 deaths per 100 million VMT in 2001 to 1.51 in 2002.  Highway safety experts, including NHTSA, agree that deaths per mile traveled is the best measure of whether motor vehicle travel is actually riskier or safer, and the fatality rate has improved steadily for at least three decades.

·                     NHTSA, the media and so-called safety advocates have led the public to believe there is a crisis with SUVs as they collide with cars—mostly because of their larger size and weight and higher bumpers.  But if this were a serious and growing problem, why would the highway fatality rate over the past several years continue to decline as millions of SUVs have entered the U.S. fleet?

·                     The fatality rate for light trucks (which includes SUVs, pickups, and vans) was unchanged from 2001, in terms of deaths per registered vehicle.  NHTSA hasn’t released the fatality rate for light trucks (deaths per VMT), but if the last 25 years are any indication, 2002 will probably show an improvement over the year before. 

·                     An estimated three million additional SUVs entered our roadways in 2002.  When there are more of any type of vehicle on the road, and more miles being driven, fatalities and injuries are likely to increase for that class of vehicle. Data just released by the Highway Loss Data Institute show that SUVs have one of the lowest injury rates, second only to large pickup trucks.  Additionally, data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show the vehicle type with the lowest fatality rate is the largest of the SUVs.


“NHTSA loves to focus on SUV rollovers, because this gives the agency a high-profile issue for a frequently demonized vehicle class.  What NHTSA doesn’t tell the public is the overall safety record of SUVs which is as good as, if not better than, that of most passenger cars,” says CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman.  “The agency owes the American people more candor and less gloom and doom.  Given their treatment by this agency and other critics, SUV really stands for Scapegoat Utility Vehicle.”