Auto safety regulators this week released new analyses of crash data
purportedly showing that light trucks and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) pose a deadly
threat. The regulators may order manufacturers to redesign the vehicles. But any new
requirements would only perpetuate the regulatory blunders that put vehicle occupants most
The Clinton administration launched this latest attack on trucks at the annual
convention of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. But the attack coincides
with the debut on Sunday of Ford Motor Co.s nine-passenger SUV, the Excursion, which
has provoked fury among environmental disciples of Vice-President Al Gore.
At a press conference on Monday in Cobo Center, officials of the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) claimed that 2,000 motorists killed in 1996 crashes
would have survived had their car collided with another passenger vehicle instead of a
light truck. And in a related study, University of Michigan researchers found that twice
as many auto drivers are killed in collisions between cars and light trucks than in
crashes between cars.
Such conclusions are alarming in a vacuum. But the NHTSA folks failed to mention
that highway fatality rates have fallen by 18 percent during the same period that light
trucks and SUVs have swelled to 30 percent of the nations fleet. Meanwhile,
collisions between passenger cars and SUVs account for a mere 4 percent of all
Nor is the U-M analysis all that compelling. Researchers only studied vehicles from
model years 1985-1993 the vast majority of which lacked air bags, side-impact
barriers and a host of other safety features that have become standard. And the U-M study
did not control for occupant use of seat belts, which is the primary determinant of crash
The NHTSA spin on cars and trucks parallels the mentality of the Clinton
administration: Whether it is profits, market share or vehicle platforms, Big is Bad.
(Except in the case of government and taxes, unfortunately.)
But in demonizing larger vehicles, NHTSA is attempting to neutralize the fatal
consequences of its past regulatory missteps. The downsizing effect on vehicles caused by
federal fuel economy standards is principally responsible for endangering drivers and
their occupants. Even by NHTSAs own accounting, the smaller cars wrought by fuel
economy standards annually kill some 2,000 to 4,000 people.
Two years ago, NHTSA researchers concluded that increasing passenger car weight by 100
pounds would save eight times more lives than reducing SUV weight by 100 pounds. Yet the
agency and the Clinton administration insist that Detroit go smaller.
This stubborn refusal to concede its regulatory mistakes prompted one federal judge to
accuse NHTSA of decisional evasion.
The agency is no less reluctant to admit that its air bag crusade has likewise spilled
blood. But recent crash tests showed that government-approved passenger-side air bags
inflate with enough force to break the necks of petite women.
While NHTSA and the White House dream up new rules to correct past regulatory blunders,
automakers are introducing safety devices like Fords Blocker Beam, a
tubular steel bar designed to protect passenger cars in crashes. But if the past is any
guide, NHTSA will ignore automakers expertise and draft new, costly regulations that
will kill more people.