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Ideas and consequences

By Lawrence W. Reed
web posted June 25, 2001

The world is full of people who can't mind their own business and who think they know what's best for the rest of us. If only we'd be smart enough to put them in charge, they figure, the world would be a better, more rationally planned place. Things would run more smoothly and efficiently and nobody's greed would be satisfied at anyone else's expense. The world's scarce resources would be husbanded for the benefit of all.

Yeah, right.

Where have we heard such nonsense before? Certainly, five-year-olds say such things but they can be excused. By nature, they are very self-absorbed and they've had no formal training yet in addition and subtraction, let alone the science of economics. It's the adults who think this way that we need to worry about because when they whine or get a bad case of the gimmees, they can sometimes get the cops to do their dirty work for them. From Robespierre to Pol Pot, from FDR's braintrusters to the opponents of Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), the world sometimes seems overrun with such dogooders itching to plan other people's lives.

Sport Utility Vehicles? How did they get in there, you ask? They are an icon of the American highway, a symbol of capitalism, a manifestation of personal choice and independence. But for those very reasons, they are also the target of attack.

While some SUV foes are indeed well-meaning though often misinformed, there's a more radical and ideological element that is spearheading the assault. It's made up of the usual anti- market suspects, and they see SUVs as disgusting, gas-guzzling indulgences, a mark of conspicuous consumption on the part of greedy suburbanites who like to flaunt their extravagant tastes.

"SUVs are hazardous to your health," says Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook advises consumers not to buy SUVs. In an ABC News report, Peter Jennings stated that the "government is grappling with what to do about the threat that sport utility vehicles represent to lesser vehicles in accidents." And CBS's Dan Rather reports that SUVs are considered a "killer on the road." The ethics columnist in the New York Times Sunday magazine even declared that owning a sport utility vehicle in Manhattan was immoral.

The Cadillac Escalade must be the tool of Satan
The Cadillac Escalade must be the tool of Satan

One of many anti-SUV Web sites refers to "the dark side of SUVs: the brown haze of air pollution, weather disasters linked to global warming, and oil derricks chugging away to fill gas tanks."

On the surface, some of the concerns expressed by SUV opponents seem reasonable and plausible. It requires a little digging to understand how bogus their objections really are. How they respond when presented with the facts is especially revealing.

Are SUVs really the highway menace portrayed by activists and the media? According to the latest research, safety is actually one reason to buy an SUV.

In the Spring 2001 issue of Regulation magazine, Douglas Coate and James VanderHoff of Rutgers University examined the relationship between traffic fatalities and "light truck" use from 1994 through 1997. "Light trucks" include SUVs, as well as minivans, pickups, and small vans. In their initial analysis, Coate and VanderHoff found a positive correlation between light truck registrations and motor vehicle fatalities: The greater the number of light trucks in a state per licensed driver, the greater the fatality rate per licensed driver.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that SUVs are involved in the bulk of rollover fatalities, which comprise nearly a quarter of annual U.S. traffic deaths. More than 60 percent of SUV fatalities are rollovers. Just 40 percent and 22 percent of pickup and car deaths, respectively, involve rollovers.

But when Coate and VanderHoff examined the vehicle registration and fatality data more carefully, they noticed that both light truck use and motor vehicle fatalities are more common in rural states. Once they allowed for the characteristics of rural states, not only did the positive relationship between light truck use and fatalities disappear, it became negative. The evidence seems strong: more light trucks—including more SUVs—mean fewer traffic deaths.

Traffic fatalities per vehicle mile traveled in the United States have plunged nearly 50 percent during the past two decades. SUV critics don't want to credit larger vehicles for that decline, so they point to stiffer penalties for drunk driving, increased seat belt use, the reintroduction of the 55 mph speed limit in some states, and safety- enhancing technological changes. But even after controlling for all those factors, Coate and VanderHoff find that SUVs have indeed reduced fatalities.

Federal government safety data from other studies indicate a lower fatality rate for SUVs—1.6 per 100 million miles traveled—than for cars. An Insurance Institute study determined that only four percent passenger-car fatalities were the result of crashes with SUVs, even though SUVs comprise a much higher percentage of vehicles on the roads. More than 40 percent of deaths were the result of single-car crashes.

The facts don't sit well with some of the more vocal SUV critics. Claybrook, for example, dismissed the Rutgers study as "poppycock" and "statistical gymnastics" but she has not challenged the study's methodology or offered any other substantive critique. She simply can't accept the notion that as more people drive big, sturdy vehicles, fewer people die in traffic accidents.

What about SUVs being major contributors to global warming because they consume more gas per mile than cars and emit lots of carbon dioxide? Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution has shown that emissions from ALL new vehicles amounts to around two percent of all CO2 emissions in the U.S. "Changing truck fuel standards is a very inefficient way to address global warming," he argues.

Moreover, critics don't usually account for the fact that driving nine people and their luggage in a Ford Excursion is more fuel efficient than driving two full- size sedans to transport the same load.

Fortunately, Americans are paying more attention to their own positive experiences than to those who criticize SUVs for a living. They continue to buy SUVs and other light trucks in record numbers. Indeed, SUVs comprise 43 percent of the vehicles on the road today. Perhaps those purchasers know instinctively what academic research is just now beginning to prove: SUVs make America's roads safer, even though they rankle some people who would rather plan your life than save it.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, www.mackinac.org. This essay will appear as one of his forthcoming monthly columns for Ideas on Liberty, the journal of the Foundation for Economic Education, www.fee.org. The author wishes to thank Peter VanDoren of the Cato Institute for his assistance in preparing the essay.

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