Is SUV Safety a Myth?

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Cato's Jerry Taylor has an illuminating op-ed piece about SUV safety in today's Washington Times. Citing a detailed analysis of crash data by University of Michigan economist Michelle White, he argues that the popular perception of SUVs as safer than smaller, lighter vehicles is correct: Despite the rollover risk, SUV occupants are less likely to be killed in a crash. White's study indicates that pickups and minivans are responsible for dragging down the safety profile of the "light truck" class.

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  1. Geez….DO I HAVE TO SAY IT AGAIN!?!?!?!?

  2. I’ve now had a chance to do a quick read of White’s paper, which can be found at her personal website–which, by the way, is not at U of Michigan, but at UCSD–how did you manage to conflate _those_ two, Mr. Sullum.

    As I suspected, White’s paper is far from being the last word on this issue. One big problem is that her regressions are estimating the probability of death or injury, _conditional_ on being in an accident. But she acknowledges that she does not take into account the fact that SUV’s and light trucks are considerably more likely to be in accidents in the first place–e.g., the high center of gravity of SUV’s makes them far more likely to roll over than other vehicles.

    Even if you ignore that issue, White reaches many conclusions that are far from congenial to SUV defenders. I encourage people to go and read the paper itself, instead of blindly accepting Sullum and Taylor’s spin on it.

  3. Sure, there are asshole drivers everywhere, but it’s only the ones in SUVs who keep trying to kill me.

  4. Jim:

    (Sarcasm on)If you didn’t hate them so much, maybe they wouldn’t try to kill you.(sarcasm off)

  5. It’s the Rosicrucians, man, I’m telling you.

  6. I remember reading an interview with the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and he said something to the effect that the ‘safest’ choice of vehicle may depend on what type of driver you are. SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks tend to survive crashes very well, but they’re not good at avoiding them. Smaller cars brake faster, turn quicker and are more manueverable (also less likely to roll over with quick manuevers) and are thus less likely to be in crashes. So if you’re the type with quick reflexes you’re probably safer in a sports car, but if you think you’ll probably not be able to avoid an accident you’re probably better off in the larger vehicles.

    It’s also been discovered that anti-lock brakes do not necessarily prevent accidents because people fail to recognize that in slippery conditions they still need more room to stop. Yet we all get an insurance discount for this even though it hasn’t been proven to save any money. I think the same thing may be discovered about the benefits of four wheel drive. I know it has helped me in some situations, but I see plenty of idiots who think they can still go 80 mph in the snow because they’ve got it.

    I think when all is said and done on this issue (if it ever is), there will be two conclusions that can be drawn:

    1) One size does not fit all, and
    2) SUVs are like power tools and guns, in that they’re only ‘unsafe’ to the extent that their operators do not know how to use them.

  7. One big problem is that her regressions are estimating the probability of death or injury, _conditional_ on being in an accident. But she acknowledges that she does not take into account the fact that SUV’s and light trucks are considerably more likely to be in accidents in the first place–e.g., the high center of gravity of SUV’s makes them far more likely to roll over than other vehicles.

    Oh lord…..

  8. Yes, the notion that SUVs are safer is the Nader philosophy, that focuses entirely on what happens after an accident, but ignores the probability of an accident occuring. The only real way to do it is deaths per passenger mile, or per passenger hour–not deaths/injuries per accident.

    Crash-proof tanks are one approach to highway safety, but not a very good one.

    The problem with SUVs is that many buy them in the hope that they’ll be safer, but they’re more difficult to drive safely, and many of their purchasers are marginal drivers to begin with, and they’re larger targets, so while the consequences of an accident may be less, the chances of one are almost certainly greater.

  9. Deaths per passenger mile is also problematic, because it does not take into account differences in driving behavior and driver demographics. Since SUV’s often appeal to young people who are statistically terrible drivers you would get a very different read on safety by comparing them to, say, luxury cars which tend to be bought by old people who drive slowly and are rarely in accidents. Granted, it may tell you what the effect is for the average SUV driver, but it would not give you a very good grip on the causality.

    Usage patterns can complicate things also. People who drive SUVs might in principle be safer on the roads in foul weather, but they’re more likely to adventure out into it because of that capability than people with 2wd/rwd passenger cars. Thus they may end up in more accidents in bad weather, because even though it is safer to drive an SUV than a car on icy roads, it is safest not to drive at all. This would not mean you are less safe having four wheel drive, any more than it would make sense to argue that police officers would be safer without guns because it falsely leads them to think they will be safe against criminals.

    One could argue that SUV drivers probably are more likely to imagine themselves adventurous (regardless of reality) and thus take more chances when driving. Minivans, by contrast, might tend to attract drivers with children who prioritize safety and thus drive more cautiously.

    I defer to my conclusions 1) and 2) above….

  10. Regarding Michelle White’s affiliation, Jerry Taylor identified her as an economist at the University of Michigan, where she worked until 2000. Mark is correct that she is currently a professor of economics at UCSD.

  11. Why should I care whether the people killed by a crash are inside or outside the truck? SUV crashes kill more people; therefore, they’re less safe. Or are some of us more equal than others?

  12. I win again! I win again!

  13. joe:

    I’m glad you’re not letting the facts get in the way of your preconceived notions. From the article:

    “Moreover, the study found no statistically significant evidence that you are more likely to die if your passenger car got into a collision with an SUV than if your passenger car got into a collision with another passenger car.”

  14. Joe is right and why isn’t the Government regulating the biggest cause of death? That is, death itself??????

  15. Joe is right and why isn’t the Government regulating the biggest cause of death? That is, death itself??????

  16. Is it still okay to not like SUVs because every near-miss you’ve been in over the last 3 years has been due to somebody in an SUV talking on their cell, not paying attention to, oh I don’t know, THE ROAD?

  17. Of course, we all know that once a single study has been done on an issue, it is settled once and for all–as long as the study reaches the results we find comforting.

  18. Jim,

    I think it’s OK to not like them personally if you’ve had a bad experience, but it sounds to me like your issue is probably asshole drivers, not the car they choose. For the record, I would never own a Ford Mustang, but mostly because the people I knew in high school that owned one were all assholes. This really isn’t rational but why be constantly reminded of bad memories?

    I think the problem of cell phone use and SUVs being associated with bad driving has more to do with the power of suggestion and the observability of the phenomemon. When someone cuts you off in a small car because they’re worried about their job security, their cheating spouse or trying to tune the radio there’s nothing apparent about their appearance that can be rationally tied to their behavior. But when someone is talking on the cell phone we can all see it stuck next to their ear. About the worst thing you can do while driving to impair your ability to drive (other than drink alcohol) is to eat or drink while you drive but no one is advocating we outlaw that.

    Same goes with SUV’s. They’re larger, more threatening (in looks anyway) and controversial so we just notice them more.

  19. SUVs are simply not as safe as cars over all. PERIOD. Guard rails were meant to keep CARS on the road, , instinctive accident avoidance maneuvers will surely roll an suv.

    But don’t listen to me, I was only a DOT accident investigator for ten years. What do I know???

  20. This is very interesting. What about the waste of money these SUVs are? It seems most times I see these bloated Tonka toys, the driver is riding solo. They are impossible to see around in traffic, they come with some annoying strobe-like brake light system, which I’m sure has caused people epyleptic fits; their headlights are always too bright and too high to be of much value besides burning a hole in the back of someones head. And now these beohemouth dumptsters with leather seats come with a convienient 300+ hp engine…..>>>>. And if faster is not better, then bigger must be, right? Rumour is, Ford is buying a bunch of old Greyhound busses, retrofitting them with the latest cupholders and selling them as the 2005 Ford Excrement.
    Do you really wanna know how I feel??

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