The auto insurance industry urged automakers on Monday to redesign sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, after concluding that these so-called “light trucks” increase the risk of death for other road users while providing little if any additional protection for their own occupants.
“The very high death rates for occupants of other vehicles colliding with pickups or utility vehicles suggest that making future-model pickups and utility vehicles more crash-compatible, especially in crashes with cars, should be a priority,” said Brian O’Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is bank-rolled by most of the nation’s auto insurers and speaks for the industry on safety matters. This is the first time the institute has called for the redesign of a class of passenger vehicles because of the harm they inflict on other drivers, he added. The institute did not recommend specific design changes; it only identified problems with the current designs.
As evidence that design changes should be made, the institute Monday sent automakers a statistical study. The study found that the death rate in accidents for people both inside and outside the vehicle was 17 percent higher for sport utility vehicles than for cars and 47 percent higher for pickups than for cars.
The insurers had not previously focused on people outside a vehicle, but this time they emphasized that group. The study found that sport utility vehicles killed occupants of other vehicles at nearly double the rate per million vehicles that cars did, while the rate for pickups was more than 2-1/2 times the rate for cars. What is more, occupants of pickups and sport utility vehicles had higher death rates than occupants of cars of the same weight. (The largest sport utility vehicles have slightly lower occupant death rates than the largest cars, which weigh less.)
No doubt the way vehicles are driven, as well as their design, affects their accident rate. Higher death rates for pickups, for example, partly reflect that they are often driven by young men on high-speed, two-lane country roads, where fatal accidents are more common per vehicle than in cities, O’Neill said. On the other hand, all but the smallest sport utility vehicles are typically driven by the same families who drive cars and mini-vans. O’Neill said the institute had been unable to find a reliable way to adjust the figures for such differences.
Because sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks make up less than a third of the vehicles on the road, and because many people die in single-vehicle accidents, the majority of deaths in vehicle accidents do not involve these light trucks. But the existence of a broad safety problem is clear, O’Neill said.
Barry Felrice, the regulatory affairs director of the Washington-based American Automobile Manufacturers Association, said some types of vehicles may inflict more damage on cars. But he said more research was needed to determine what, if any, design changes should be made.
Ford Motor Co. said the safety of cars was steadily improving as newer models carried more safety features and as seat belt use rose and drunken driving declined.
But Dr. Ricardo Martinez, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in an interview Monday evening that he hoped the auto industry would look for ways to make light trucks more compatible with cars during crashes, and warned that the American public would demand new safety regulations if the automakers did nothing. “My hope is that the increased recognition of compatibility problems will lead to design changes in the marketplace,” he said.
He said he was particularly concerned about the trend toward ever-larger sport utility vehicles. “As the size goes up, you don’t get a lot more safety inside the sport utility vehicle, but you create more damage outside.”
The study found that very large sport utility vehicles, like the Chevrolet Suburban, have occupant death rates in two-vehicle crashes only slightly lower than those for midsized sport utility vehicles, like the Ford Explorer, but are considerably more likely to kill people in other vehicles.
The insurance institute’s study said that light trucks posed dangers to cars because they tended to be heavier and have higher front ends and stiffer frames than cars. The front ends of sport utility vehicles and pickups are so high that when they hit cars in the side they tend to pass over the car’s sturdy underbody and strike the weaker door and window instead, the study said.
“Addressing front-to-side crash compatibility should be a priority, even though improvements to vehicles’ side and front designs won’t be easy to accomplish without altering the geometry of vehicles,” O’Neill said.