Slouching Towards Detroit
Recently the spokesman for SUV Owners of America (SUVOA), Ron DeFore, was interviewed by the Washington Post. One exchange was particularly telling. The interviewer conceded that SUV’s may increase the safety of their owners, but increased rates of death for those in smaller cars. DeFore replied:
[T]here has always been a difference in the sizes of vehicles in our fleet. Should people who prefer smaller vehicles have the right to regulate what the rest of us drive? Ask this question: Would we have fewer fatalities if everyone drove compact cars, or if everyone drove SUVs? The answer is SUVs. The more metal you have, the more crash protection you have.
I think his assertions about the safety of those within the SUV are unwarranted. But let’s just assume for the moment that he’s right. Studies like Michelle White’s (in the Journal of Law and Economics) show that “each crash involving fatalities of light-truck or SUV occupants that is prevented comes at a cost of at least 4.3 additional crashes that involve deaths of car occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists, or motorcyclists.” So are we really ready to sacrifice 4.3 non-SUV drivers for every SUV driver that is saved? White’s study concludes that “the safety benefit of substituting cars for light trucks and SUVs on the road is found to be similar in magnitude to the benefit of seat belts.”
Note the cruel dilemma the increasing number of SUV’s poses for parents. If you buy one, you’re helping to protect your family, but you’re contributing to roadway conditions that worsen the plight of those that can’t afford one. If you don’t buy one, you’re virtuous, but putting yourself at more risk should you ever get run into by an SUV.
Some countries know how to ameliorate these dilemmas, by, for instance, imposing “special excise taxes on the purchase of [SUVs], higher registration fees, tighter gas mileage standards . . . freeway tolls based on vehicle size, and higher gasoline taxes generally.” Unfortunately, an administration that seems deadset against internalizing such externalities (aided by some rustbelt Dems) seems unlikely to do much to stop the SUV epidemic. Perhaps eventually it will see it as a religious issue.