April 21, 2005
SUV, Truck and Motorcycle Deaths Up, but Remedies Are Available
Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*
Three trends are evident in the preliminary fatality data released today by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). First, SUV fatalities have increased again, this time up 4.9 percent between 2003 and 2004. SUV rollover fatalities are up 6.9 percent and account for most of the increase in SUV fatalities. Second, more drivers and passengers of large trucks died in crashes in 2004; these truck fatalities are up 6.2 percent, and more people in vehicles involved in truck crashes died than in 2003 (up 2.8 percent). Third, motorcycle crash deaths leapt for the seventh consecutive year and are up 7.3 percent. In fact, motorcycle crash deaths have jumped 85 percent since 1997. That year, they constituted 5 percent of overall highway fatalities; now, they make up 9 percent.
Each of these numbers represents the death of a family member and many shattered lives. What is tragic is that so many of these are preventable.
SUV rollover deaths would be reduced with a rollover prevention standard requiring automakers to ensure vehicles are not prone to tipping over during emergency maneuvers. Now, no such standard exists. Also critically needed are rollover crashworthiness standards requiring a strong roof; the current standard is 34 years old, allowing flimsy vehicle roofs. These roofs crush in during rollovers, killing or inflicting severe spinal cord injuries and shattering windows, permitting thousands of ejections. Requiring pre-tensioned belts, window glazing to prevent ejections and side head air bags that inflate in rollovers are all critical measures that would save lives.
Large truck crash deaths could also be lowered. Data show that as many as 30 to 40 percent of truck fatalities are caused by trucker fatigue. The remedy is to cut the number of hours truckers are on the road. Instead of taking this sensible step, however, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2003 increased the allowed weekly driving time for truckers by nearly 30 percent. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has told the agency to revise its rule. The agency should heed the order and lower the number of hours truckers are required to drive.
Finally, the increase in motorcycle deaths can be tied to the absence of helmet laws; 30 states have no laws requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. We know these laws work, because Louisana saw a 100 percent increase in motorcycle fatalities and a 50 percent drop in helmet usage since repealing the all-rider law in 1999. As a result, in 2004, the state voted to reinstate its all-rider helmet law.
Many of these remedies have been discussed for years by regulators, but nothing has been done. It’s past time for them to act. They can and should take steps to ensure that the annual release of highway crash data shows a decrease in the loss of life in every category, rather than alarming increases.
*Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981.