Don't Depose
The Kings of the Road

By David C. Stolinsky
Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Wall Street Journal (May 5, 1998)

When I was a young man I bought my first car. At my mother's insistence, I consulted Consumer Reports to pick a safe model. Some time later I was involved in a head-on collision on a freeway. I got out of the hospital in one day; the wrong-way driver was killed. His model was rated poorly by Consumer Reports. I was thankful that I had followed my mother's advice. Over the years I remained interested in auto safety, reading auto magazines, Ralph Nader's book "Unsafe at Any Speed," insurance loss data for different models and government crash-test results. For four decades, safety experts all assumed that safer models were better.

Now federal officials say we were wrong the whole time. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration honchos believe that because the occupants of heavier vehicles fare better in crashes with lighter vehicles, the heavier vehicles are a safety problem. Government safety experts have focused their criticism on sport-utility vehicles, whose sales have grown rapidly in recent years. Perhaps I should have felt guilty that I was in a safer car than the wrong-way driver. True, I might have been killed, but then he might have survived.

NHTSA safety experts are pressuring auto makers into changing sport-utility and pickup-truck designs. The agency is threatening to impose regulations if Detroit doesn't cooperate, and plans to attract public attention to the big car menace at a sport-utility safety summit next month. Some proposed changes make sense--for example, lowering sport-utility bumpers closer to the height of other car bumpers. This would improve small-car safety at little cost to sport-utility safety. But other proposed changes, such as weakening frames and lightening body panels, would increase small car safety at the expense of sport-utility drivers.

Oddly, the government is not mandating that small cars be strengthened. Yet a government study estimates that adding 100 pounds to small cars would save eight times more lives than lightening sport-utility vehicles by 100 pounds. This is because most car occupants who die are killed not by hitting sport-utility vehicles but by hitting other cars or stationary objects.

Americans have been encouraged to buy fuel-efficient but dangerous compact cars since the 1973 oil crisis. But after 25 years of liberal oil consumption, estimated oil reserves have not decreased. Indeed, gasoline prices have fallen to the point that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries must cut production to prop up prices.

Vice President Al Gore maintains that the internal combustion engine, by contributing to global warming, threatens humanity's future. Let's assume for the sake of argument that global warming exists and just doesn't reveal itself in satellite data. Assume it is due to human activity, though may scientists doubt this. Even if every automobile in America vanished, world-wide carbon dioxide production by humans would fall by only 4%, according to James Johnston's "Driving America." This would have a negligible effect on climate. Eliminating only sport-utility vehicles would have even less effect.

In exchange for this tiny--and speculative--benefit, lives would be lost if people driving sport-utility vehicles had to switch to flimsier cars. Lighter cars mandated by government fuel-economy standards are already causing 2,200 to 3,900 deaths annually, according to a study by the Brookings Institution and Harvard.

Paramedics, who witness traffic accidents daily, tend to put their families in SUVs, pickups or large cars. Let the bureaucrats and insurance executives leave their luxury cars and limousines and drive the subcompacts they recommend to us.

Mr. Stolinsky is a retired physician and medical school teacher living in Los Angeles.

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