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Automakers Should Fix Dangerous Vehicles, Stop Blaming Victims, Public Citizen Says in Cease and Desist Letter

May 22, 2003

Automakers Should Fix Dangerous Vehicles, Stop Blaming Victims, Public Citizen Says in Cease and Desist Letter


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen today called on the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing 11 automakers, to cease its misleading public relations campaign, which blames victims of fatal sport utility vehicle rollover crashes for their own deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in late April published its preliminary fatality estimates for 2002, showing that SUV, pickup and van deaths accounted for more than half of the increase in total traffic deaths in 2002. In Washington Post stories published after the announcement, representatives of the Alliance blamed the deaths on a lack of seat belt use by SUV occupants and pointed to a rise in alcohol-related deaths.

“This is just the ‘nut-behind-the-wheel’ theory of the 1960s in updated clothes,” Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook wrote in her letter to Alliance President Josephine Cooper. “NHTSA statistics show that SUV and van drivers have the same safety belt use rates as car drivers in fatal rollover crashes, and use alcohol while driving slightly less than car drivers do in fatal crashes.”

Seat belt-use rates in rollover crashes in SUVs and passenger cars are virtually identical, but these crashes account for 61 percent of SUV occupant deaths and only 24 percent of car occupant deaths. Public Citizen avidly supports increased belt use, but Claybrook’s letter noted that manufacturers have too often installed inadequate belts that fail during rollovers have not installed effective belt reminder systems or sensors on air bags and belts to provide rollover crash protection and refuse to support federal legislation mandating primary safety belt enforcement.

The unsafe design of SUVs – not SUV occupants – are at fault for the nearly 2,000 people who die each year in those vehicles, Claybrook said. The vehicles are wobbly and prone to rolling over. They also have flimsy roofs that crush in as the vehicles roll and inadequate belts that allow occupants to fly out of their seats.

Auto manufacturers have long-been aware of these safety deficiencies but have fought against improved government standards and have taken no voluntary action to reduce hazards.

Claybrook asked the Alliance how it would respond to Sandy Turner of Little Rock, Ark., who was wearing her seatbelt and had not been drinking when her SUV rolled over in a 1994 crash, but is a paraplegic because of injuries she sustained in the crash.

“Stop deflecting blame and start acting to save lives,” Claybrook wrote.

Claybrook also sent letters today to two auto safety researchers who have told the media that future efforts to reduce fatalities in vehicles will be less effective than past efforts – statements the auto industry also has made. Claybrook asked Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and Robert Ervin of the University of Michigan to rethink their positions and devote their academic energies to limiting deaths resulting from SUVs.

“I would welcome your enthusiastic engagement in research on the growing threat posed by SUVs to the considerable achievements of the past three decades,” Claybrook wrote. “Most unwelcome is your attitude of marked indifference, or even cynicism.”

Click here to view Public Citizen’s letter to the Alliance. A fact sheet debunking the Alliance’s misleading statements is available here and a statement of Sandy Turner, which she gave to Congress in February, is available here.

A copy of Claybrook’s letter to Ervin is posted here and and a copy of the letter to Dingus is available here.