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SUVs Need to Be Redesigned; Congress Must Impose Safety Standards on These Deadly Behemoths

Feb. 26, 2003

SUVs Need to Be Redesigned; Congress Must Impose Safety Standards on These Deadly Behemoths


Voluntary Measures Have Never Worked, Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President and Former NHTSA Administrator, Tells Lawmakers


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sport utility vehicles, which make highways more deadly, should be redesigned, and the federal government should impose safety standards on these unsafe vehicles, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told members of the U.S. Senate today.

“Manufacturers have known for years about these hazards, and instead of acting voluntarily, have bobbed, weaved, delayed and denied,” Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “The combination of safety design shortcuts that imperil occupants, aggressive and incompatible designs that devastate the occupants of other vehicles, and special, higher levels of fuel usage and pollutants means that SUVs as now designed are a lose-lose for society.

“Better regulation is sorely needed to transform this socially and environmentally hostile vehicle into one worth selling or owning.”

In her testimony, Claybrook outlined how SUVs hamper visibility on roads, blind drivers with higher headlamps, take longer to stop, imperil people in other vehicles, roll over much more frequently than passenger cars, and have weak roofs and poor crash protections, causing occupants of SUVs to sustain more severe injuries in rollover crashes.

In 1999, the fatality rate in crashes for occupants of SUVs was 17.8 percent, higher than the rate for occupants of passenger cars, which was 16.4 percent, according to NHTSA data. But when the impact on other vehicles in two-vehicle crashes is taken into account, SUVs cause far more deaths, data show. One former NHTSA administrator estimated in 1997 that the aggressive design of light trucks (a category that includes SUVs) has needlessly killed 2,000 people each year.

“We must address the net social consequences of bad choices,” Claybrook said.

Other highlights of the testimony include:

  • The high, boxy design of SUVs makes them prone to rolling over, particularly in emergency maneuvers. Rollovers can be highly survivable, because the forces involved are lower than in many other types of crashes. However, while 22 percent of passenger car occupant fatalities are attributable to rollovers, a whopping 61 percent of SUV occupant fatalities are. The government does not require SUVs or any other vehicles to meet any rollover prevention standard. Further, the existing vehicle roof crash standard is old and inadequate, particularly for SUVs.
  • The stiffness and incompatibility in design between SUVs and cars make them highly aggressive in multiple vehicle crashes. When SUVs collide head-on with passenger cars, the driver of a passenger car is more than four times as likely to die as the SUV driver. When an SUV hits the side of a passenger car, the driver of that car is more than 16 times as likely to die as the SUV driver.
  • Numerous loopholes in the law permit SUVs to continue to be made with substandard designs. SUVs that weigh more than 6,000 pounds must meet only a weak, outdated side impact crash test, so many larger SUVs need not offer reinforced side door crash protection. Nor must SUVs over 6,000 pounds meet any minimum crash protection standards for roof strength. There is no rule regarding the bumper height of SUVs, and light truck tires have not been held to the same high-speed and endurance requirements as passenger car tires.

Although automakers recently discussed conducting research to perhaps develop voluntary improvements, voluntary measures don’t work, Claybrook explained. No oversight exists to ensure that measures are being followed or that they truly benefit the public. The public is not involved in the process, and manufacturers can halt the program at any time.

“The vague and half-hearted promises offered in the manufacturers’ recent letter to NHTSA are no substitute for a public process and implementing government safety standards,” she said.

Claybrook called for NHTSA to require SUVs to meet government safety rules to prevent rollover crashes, protect occupants in rollovers and become more compatible with passenger cars. She called on Congress to close a tax loophole that not only gives business owners a break for buying large SUVs but encourages them to buy the biggest ones available, to give NHTSA more money to develop standards and track crash data, and to improve SUV fuel economy. She also said that vehicle safety information stickers containing NHTSA’s rollover ratings should be on SUVs at the point of sale instead of being posted on NHTSA’s Web page.

Between 1994 and 2001, 12,959 people died in SUV rollovers alone. “No more consumers should be guinea pigs in this ongoing, failed experiment in market dynamics,” Claybrook said. “Congress should ask the manufacturers to bring their fleets into this century by upgrading the vehicles’ safety and fuel economy in one combined design. These changes would transform American highways by saving countless lives, improving the quality of vehicles sold in America, and making the United States once again a leader in automotive safety.”

To read the testimony on the Web, click here.