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Bigger is NOT Better; Fuel Economy and SUV Safety Go Hand-in-Hand

June 11, 2003

Bigger is NOT Better; Fuel Economy and SUV Safety Go Hand-in-Hand

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

This past April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that the number of traffic fatalities in the United States rose to 42,850. the highest death toll since 1990.

We also found out this spring that the average fuel economy for the nation’s fleet of motor vehicles declined in 2002 – for the first time in 22 years – to 20.4 mpg.

There is a simple explanation for these alarming statistics: the proliferation of sport utility vehicles, which now make up one-fourth of all new vehicles sold. These vehicles are threatening to overwhelm the revolutionary safety improvements we have seen since the first auto safety laws were passed by Congress in 1966. And they are steadily rolling back the significant fuel conservation gains that began with passage of the first Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in 1975.

For the health of the public, for the health of the environment, and for the health of the economy, we are here today to talk about the need for a better SUV.

The automakers for years have insisted that safety would be compromised if they were forced to make SUVs go farther on a gallon of gasoline. They are wrong. But they are right that safety and CAFE standards are linked. In fact, as the report we are releasing today shows, lax fuel-economy standards for the category of vehicle called “light trucks” opened a loophole that allowed Detroit to producer bigger, more powerful SUVs without regard for fuel use and without regard for the design and safety features that would make them safe for America’s families.

The sticker price on a new SUV is high enough. But that only begins to tell the story of the true cost of SUVs. American families pay in lost lives as well as wasted fuel and harm to the environment.

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.

SUVs are second only to minivans as the most popular choice of vehicle for transporting children. But this new analysis shows that they are twice as deadly for children as minivans and more dangerous to children than large or mid-sized passenger cars.

We also found that children are more at risk from a rollover crash in an SUV than in any other type of vehicle. And alarmingly, the use of SUVs to transport children is rising, while the use of minivans and cars is declining.

In energy costs, we found that SUV owners spent $9 billion more for gasoline last year than they would have if SUVs were as fuel-efficient as cars. That’s $350 for each and every SUV owner. Put another way, that’s 151 million barrels of oil that the United States would have saved.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know that Detroit can do better. That’s why we have launched a new grassroots campaign to organize SUV owners who want safer, more efficient SUVs. This campaign started late last week with a series of radio ads that are running in a number of cities in addition to Washington, D.C. Those ads ask SUV owners to sign on to a new Web site – www.bettersuv.org – to learn more about SUVs and what they can do to demand better SUVs.

The big automakers claim they are helpless to act because they are driven by consumer choice. It might be true that consumers like their SUVs – but public opinion polls show consistently that they also value safety and fuel economy. The goal of our campaign is a better SUV. Detroit should stop making excuses and just do it.

We know automakers have the technology. Each year, the fuel and engine efficiency of motor vehicles increases by an average of 1.9 percent. Automakers could use these gains to make SUVs go farther on a gallon of gasoline. Instead, they add weight and acceleration to SUVs, which they can do because of lax CAFE standards. More weight only increases the size disparity between SUVs and other passenger vehicles, making them more dangerous to everyone. Automakers have done little to make SUVs more stable, resulting in more and more rollover crashes that pose risks to the very children that parents are trying to protect in these massive vehicles. Nor are these vehicles designed to protect families when they crash in rollovers.

These are choices made in Detroit, not by consumers. That’s why Congress has to act. We know consumers want better SUVs, and we know Detroit can give consumers the real choices they want: safe and fuel-efficient SUVs.

Had Congress in 1990 passed CAFE legislation sponsored by Sen. Richard Bryan, passenger cars would now be getting, on average, 40 miles per gallon, and SUVs and other light trucks would be getting 29 miles per gallon. This would have saved motorists $89 billion in fuel costs and reduced U.S. oil consumption by 1.5 billion barrels in 2002 alone. It also would have resulted in safer highways for everyone.

With the pending energy bill, Congress has another opportunity with amendments by Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein to shift out of reverse and into forward. Let’s hope Congress doesn’t blow it.

To read Public Citizen’s report on SUV safety and fuel economy, click here. To read the press release, click here.