Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 27, 2003
Jonathan Adler's able two-part defense of the SUV against attacks by Greg Easterbrook of the New Republic (part two is here) is persuasive on most points, but the central question is unanswered: is it right to have cars on the road that present, by their size, weight and high bumpers, such a high risk to others? Adler isn't really sure:
While shrinking SUV size might improve car safety, it is incontrovertible that increasing the weight of passenger cars by 100 pounds would almost certainly reduce highway fatalities by over 300 per year. These results are consistent with other studies, such as that by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which concluded that "the high risks of occupants in light (and small) cars have more to do with the vulnerabiltiy of their own vehicles than with the aggressivity of other vehicles. "Traveling in a larger, heavier vehicle reduces your risk of being killed in a crash," notes Dr. Leonard Evans, president of the International Traffic Medicine Association. "There is no more firmly established conclusion in the vast body of traffic safety research." In other words, if the primary aim is to increase automotive safety, the Easterbrook's target should not be SUVs, but smaller, less-expensive cars. "Upsizing the car fleet may well be the most important step we could take toward improving safety," notes Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
To his credit, Easterbrook admits that federal studies make clear that "the most dangerous vehicles for their occupants are compact and sub-compact cars," not SUVs. He even suggests that the government should ban such "econo-boxes." Yet all this demonstrates is Easterbrook's willingness to tell other people what to drive. He evidently places little value on the ability of consumers to purchase the cars of their own choosing.
In other words, people driving smaller cars are risking their lives, but they should be able to make that choice. As a matter of theory that makes economic sense, and maybe I'm grouchy about this issue because I just had to buy a minivan after my car got totalled by a minor fender-bender with a high-riding SUV. But Adler doesn't really answer the question: assuming (as is the case) that many people drive small cars because that's all they can afford, shouldn't there be a greater burden placed on SUVs for the hazards they present to such drivers? (Granted, trucks present even greater risks, but trucks (1) serve a valuable economic purpose and (2) are subjected to stringent regulations, including a separate licensing regime). At a minimum -- and I don't know if this is true -- the auto insurance market should be made to internalize, for SUV drivers, the cost of accidents between SUVs and non-SUV vehicles.
In short, I'm sympathetic to Adler's individual-autonomy concerns, as well as to the more general sense in Easterbrook's pieces that people who drive SUVs in urban or heavily populated areas tend to be unreasonably aggressive drivers. There has to be a solution that lets people choose SUVs for their virtues while compelling them to bear the SUV's social costs.