TCS Daily

We Like the Odds

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - April 28, 2003 12:00 AM

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just released its preliminary traffic fatality figures for 2002 and they show a slight increase in auto accident deaths over 2001. And guess what? Those damn SUVs are the biggest cause for the increase.

The NHTSA reports that 42,850 people died in traffic accidents in 2002, the most deaths since 1990. There were 734 more traffic deaths than in 2001. And as USA Today reported, "about half the increase - 387 deaths - were in sport utility and pickup rollovers."

Well folks, let's wade into these figures a bit. Fatal traffic accidents on an individual basis are terrible things. Often they are just that - accidents. They result in a sudden, unforeseen loss of a relative or friend or neighbor. Sometimes there is clearly negligence involved - drunk driving, recklessness, excessive speed, inattention. The senselessness of the loss deepens the scar. A sad staple of local news coverage this time of year is the teens-killed-after-the-prom story.

But in the greater scheme of things we, as a nation, long ago came to terms with traffic fatalities as a reality of our automobile culture. In fact, auto fatalities have been in a general decline for some time as cars have become safer.

Right now there are over 225 million vehicles registered in the U.S. We love to drive, we have to drive and we do drive - a lot. Trillions of miles each year. These miles are logged by every conceivable kind of person in every conceivable (and perhaps inconceivable) state of mind. A state trooper friend of mine once put it this way. If you see a person walking toward you acting erratically or menacingly, you might well walk out of your way to avoid them. But chances are when you are driving you may unknowingly encounter the same type of person whipping past you at 60 or 70 miles per hour a few feet to your left in another car.

When you think about it, it's utterly amazing that more accidents don't happen. Make no mistake, Americans do bang into each other quite a lot. Those 42,850 people in 2002 were killed in 38,356 car accidents. But there were 6.2 million non-fatal car accidents in the same year. Almost 2 million of those resulted in injuries, but the vast majority - 4.3 million - were "property damage only" accidents.

All these accidents are a burden to the economy. But we seem to accept the costs and the death toll. Most of us take the inherent dangers of operating an automobile for granted and many of us are slow to take even the most basic and proven steps at possible prevention - huge numbers of us still do not buckle our seatbelts.

Based on recent years of statistics, we "accept" about 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled; about 19 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles registered; and about 15 auto deaths for every 100,000 people in the nation.

And so, indeed, we are not much bothered by a miniscule number of deaths related to SUVs rolling over. It should be clear by now to anti-auto elitists that SUV owners don't really care that much about this known propensity of this type of vehicle. This is not out of callousness. It is simply a realistic acceptance of trade offs, much like using a rotary lawn mower - it's dangerous, but its benefits in mowing efficiency and neatness outweigh the danger.

Okay, let's go over this one more time. Most SUVs (and pickup trucks) have higher centers of gravity than passenger cars (see our article "Truckin'"). The high profile of these vehicles is one of the reasons for their popularity. People like "sitting up where you can see over traffic," and they like the boxlike cargo space and the SUV's potential for negotiating difficult roads, rough terrain and bad weather (snow, water ponding) because of their higher ground clearance.

So, while the elitists rage against SUVs and seize upon any shred of statistics to prove them "dangerous," or "anti-social" or "irresponsible," the benighted masses love them and keep on buying them in ever greater numbers. R.L. Polk & Co., which keeps its statistical finger on the pulse of the auto industry, reports that SUVs now command about 27 percent of all new personal vehicle registrations in the U.S. That's the largest share of any passenger vehicle category.

There are now over 14 million SUVs registered in the U.S., and Polk analysts find that SUV owners span all income and social levels. "SUV owners are so demographically diverse, it is impossible to accurately classify them as a group," says Lonnie Miller, director of Polk's analysis team.

What defines these owners is a desire for performance, power, functionality and versatility, according to Polk. Seldom in automotive history has consumer loyalty to a certain type of vehicle become so entrenched. The auto industry average for repeat sales of a certain type of car (buy a convertible once, buy another convertible next time) is 41 percent. But Polk's most recent statistics show that 51 percent of all SUV owners stick with SUVs when they buy their next vehicle.

The NHTSA says that 61 percent of fatalities in SUVs are the result of rollovers. But SUV owners shrug these figures off, just as most drivers shrug off most accident statistics. NHTSA's Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge, a physician, laments that "as a nation, we should be outraged over the loss of nearly 43,000 of our friends, neighbors and family members" to traffic accidents.

But the fact is, we are not outraged. We are saddened, perhaps, and chastened when a traffic death close to us puts the statistics in personal perspective. But the plain fact is, we like the odds. The average driver of any vehicle - be it a sedan or an SUV - does not expect, nor indeed believe he or she will "become a statistic." So other considerations - from the practical to the psychological - about the vehicle they choose to own and drive far outweigh their fear or concern. Good? Bad? It's just a reality of our auto culture.

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