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New Federal Study on Vehicle Weight and Safety Is Old Wine in New Bottle

Oct. 14, 2003

New Federal Study on Vehicle Weight and Safety Is Old Wine in New Bottle


Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

The study released today by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about the relationship between vehicle weight and safety is like old wine in a new bottle — it contains the same scientific deficiencies as the agency’s hotly debated 1997 study. Although the 1997 study has been frequently cited in the debate over fuel economy standards, neither study accurately describes manufacturer actions to meet fuel economy standards, and both studies flout the historical record.

NHTSA’s study is based on a comparison of the safety records of vehicles differing by 100 pounds, ignoring differences in safety design, which other studies have shown to matter most. The study also ignores history; manufacturers increased fuel economy primarily by improving technology, not by making vehicles lighter. To the extent that automakers did make vehicles lighter, they did so mainly with the largest vehicles, not all vehicles.

The study also confuses size and weight when analyzing vehicle safety. NHTSA fails to take into account that decades of engineering studies show that increasing the weight of large vehicles is bad for overall highway safety because it increases the disparity in weight between vehicles on the road, causing greater harm to smaller vehicles. Yet large size (not weight) is beneficial and feasible without weight increases through lightweight, high-strength materials and other technologies.

To adequately address this matter, NHTSA should go back to the drawing board and develop a more solution-oriented approach to safety and fuel economy using new technologies in both areas to achieve a win-win for the public.

Click here to read a new analysis of the 1997 and 2003 NHTSA studies, including data on historical trends.

Note: Joan Claybrook was NHTSA Administrator from 1977-1981.