June 11, 2003

New Study: SUVs Riskier to Children Than Minivans, Large and Mid-Sized Cars

Stronger CAFE Standards Will Improve Conservation and Safety

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sport utility vehicles are the second most popular choice of vehicle for transporting children – behind minivans – but they are twice as deadly for children as minivans and more dangerous to children than large or mid-sized passenger cars, according to a new Public Citizen study released today during a news conference at the Capitol.

Public Citizen also announced a new Web-based campaign, launched with radio ads in six states and the District of Columbia, to organize parents and other SUV owners who want to join with safety advocates to demand that automakers produce safer, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The U.S. Senate is expected, as early as today, to take up an amendment by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) to increase fuel economy for all passenger vehicles, including SUVs, to 40 mpg by 2015. Average fuel economy for motor vehicles dropped in 2002 to the lowest level in 22 years and has declined nearly 6 percent since peaking in 1988.

The new study – SUVs: The High Costs of Lax Fuel Economy Standards for American Families – outlines the high costs associated with the rapid proliferation of SUVs – both in terms of rising traffic fatalities and declining fuel economy. It was written in conjunction with researchers Marc Ross of the University of Michigan and Tom Wenzel of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories.

"Parents who drive their children to school or sporting events in their SUVs might have a false sense of security because they are riding high and their vehicle is bigger than other cars on the road, but this new research demonstrates that children face a significantly higher risk in SUVs than in many other vehicles," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

The study also found that:

  • Children are more at risk from a rollover crash in an SUV than in any other type of vehicle. Alarmingly, the use of SUVs to transport children is rising, while the use of minivans and cars is declining.
  • SUV owners collectively paid almost $9 billion – $350 each – more for gasoline in 2002 in the United States than they would if SUVs were as fuel-efficient as the average car. This translates into 151 million extra barrels of oil consumed in the United States in 2002 to fuel SUVs.
  • The fuel efficiency of engines increases by an average of 1.9 percent per year, but automakers chose to use these efficiency gains to increase acceleration and add weight to vehicles (mostly in SUVs) instead of increasing fuel economy.
  • Had Congress in 1990 enacted legislation authored by Sen. Richard Bryan to increase fuel economy, passenger cars would now be getting, on average, 40 miles per gallon (mpg), and light trucks would get 29 mpg. This would have saved motorists $89 billion and reduced U.S. oil consumption by 1.5 billion barrels in 2002 alone.

Auto manufacturers have insisted for years that stronger Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for SUVs would compromise safety. But this new report shows that bigger is not safer and that SUVs are among the most dangerous vehicles on the road – in part because of their propensity to roll over and the damage they do to others on the highway.

In April, NHTSA reported that the number of people killed on U.S. highways rose by 1.7 percent in 2002, to 42,850 – the first time in 25 years that fatalities increased over the previous year and the highest toll since 1990. Pickup and SUV rollover deaths accounted for 46 percent of the increase in all occupant fatalities and 78 percent of the increase in passenger vehicle rollover fatalities.

This first increase in traffic deaths in 25 years comes as SUVs have assumed a dominant position in the market for new vehicles. SUV sales rose from 1.8 percent of new vehicles sales in 1975 to 23.4 percent in 2003.

While SUV occupants face significant risks from rollover crashes, occupants of other cars face major risks from SUVs as well. In frontal crashes, SUVs kill 4.3 car drivers for every one SUV driver who is killed.

"Every year, SUV owners spend far more money at the gas pump than other drivers," Durbin said. "Automakers have the technology to make SUVs and other vehicles get better gas mileage, but they have chosen not to do that – instead the largest SUVs have gotten bigger, heavier and more dangerous. Strengthening standards will push manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency and at the same time reduce the size and weight disparity between SUVs and cars, improving safety for everyone on the road."

To listen to the radio ad and view the new Web site for SUV owners who want automakers to improve safety and fuel economy, go to www.bettersuv.org.

To read Joan Claybrook's fulls statement from the news conference, click here.

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