NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Sport Utility Vehicle Traffic Deaths Rise

April 30, 2003

Regulators said last week that 42,850 people died in traffic-related deaths in 2002, the highest number since 1990. So what's happening on the roads?

Rollovers of Sport Utility Vehicles and pickup trucks accounted for more than half of the 734-death increase from 2001 to 2002, according to the traffic safety agency. Some independent safety advocates believe that increasing seat-belt use, airbags and computer safety systems should have led to a dramatic decline in auto death rates -- but that the rise of rollover-prone vehicles has dampened their effect.

  • Rollovers account for a staggering 32 percent of automobile fatalities, more than 10,000 annually.
  • Rollover deaths are increasing along with sales of light trucks -- S.U.V.'s, pickups and minivans.
  • Since 1980, light trucks have grown from a fifth of the nation's sales to more than half, and S.U.V.s and pickups in particular are prone to upend because of their high centers of gravity.

Automakers, however, argue that rollovers are relatively infrequent and that S.U.V.s are safer than cars in other types of crashes.

S.U.V.s are two to three times more protective of their occupants in frontal, rear and side-impact crashes that make up 97.5 percent of all crashes, and accounted for only 2.5 percent of all crashes, say manufacturers.

But auto safety advocates are not swayed by these arguments. Rollovers, they say, are a sort of traffic cancer -- uncommon but deadly -- that make S.U.V.s slightly more dangerous for their own occupants than passenger cars.

The latest statistics make the new and improved federal tests on rollovers, expected later this year, all the more noteworthy. Congress mandated the tests in 2000 after a spate of rollovers in Ford Explorers with Firestone tires.

Source: Danny Hakim, "S.U.V.'s Take a Hit, as Traffic Deaths Rise," New York Times, April 27, 2003.


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