Sam Kazman: Too Tough on SUVs, Too Soft on Mini-Cars

Official traffic statistics are one of the last things that you'd expect to find distorted by political correctness. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, seems to be doing its best to change that.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Last April the agency released its preliminary estimates of highway fatalities for the past year. Its press release at the time painted a gloomy picture of “grim statistics”– overall deaths were up from the year before.

Worse yet, the safety agency blamed much of the increase on the vehicle that social critics love to hate — the SUV. Newspapers quickly picked up the theme. The Washington Post headlined its story, “Highway Deaths Up … SUV Rollovers Are Major Factor,” while the New York Times declared, “SUVs Take a Hit, as Traffic Deaths Rise.”

But in the past few weeks two new agency studies have demonstrated just how wrongheaded those reports were, though you won't learn that from the agency's press office.

One study, a more complete version of last April's data, showed that driving is becoming safer, not riskier. While traffic deaths in 2002 did increase in absolute terms over the year before, the occupancy fatality rate per vehicle mile traveled (VMT) actually improved. That rate fell from 1.52 deaths per 100 million VMT in 2001 to 1.51 in 2002. This is the rate to keep your eye on, because it's the single best measure of whether driving is becoming riskier or safer. This rate has been improving steadily for at least three decades, and last year was no exception.

The agency spent much of the last year focusing on SUV rollovers — a high-profile type of accident to which some SUV models are more vulnerable than passenger cars. Not too long ago, the agency's chief, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, even declared that he'd never let his daughter ride in a rollover-prone SUV. But while the agency has made much of the fact that SUV rollover deaths increased last year, it said practically nothing about the main reason for that increase — namely, the fact that the total number of SUVs on the road has greatly increased.

The agency's emphasis on SUV rollovers obscures the much more important question of overall crashworthiness. When you look at all accident modes combined (which is what any sane consumer should be most concerned about), SUVs as a category turn out to perform better than passenger cars.

The most unsafe vehicles, by far, are mini-cars — their death rates, according to another new agency study, are almost four times as great as those of large cars and large SUVs. Mini-cars, however, are today's epitome of political correctness — small, cute, and extremely fuel-efficient. If you're waiting to hear Runge's views on allowing his daughter in a mini-car, don't hold your breath.

That second study also casts a new light on the agency's other hobbyhorse — its program to boost fuel economy by imposing mile-per-gallon standards on carmakers. The agency claims it's only encouraging the auto industry to incorporate new technologies desired by consumers. If you need a federal law to push those technologies out the door, however, then there's probably something wrong with them. More importantly, the agency's fuel standards force vehicles to be made smaller and lighter, which means they're less crashworthy.

Two years ago a National Academy of Sciences study found that this downsizing contributes to about 2,000 traffic deaths per year. That is a huge human toll, so embarrassing that the agency's press office ignores it. The agency's latest study, however, might make this issue harder to hide; it finds that those estimates of deaths are probably too low. Unfortunately, you'll have to dig into the report itself to find that, because the agency's press release doesn't say a thing about it.