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UT Austin civil engineering professor finds sport utility vehicles less safe than cars

Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), the middle-class status symbol of the 1990s, are not as safe as most people think they are, according to research by a University of Texas at Austin civil engineering professor.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs), the middle-class status symbol of the 1990s, are not as safe as most people think they are, according to research by a University of Texas at Austin civil engineering professor.

And, SUVs are less fuel-efficient and pollute the environment more than standard passenger vehicles, said Dr. Kara Kockelman, assistant professor of civil engineering.

“I want to enlighten policy makers and their constituents on the ways in which public policy has favored and helped to promote the popularity of sport utility vehicles,” said Kockelman, who is working under a prestigious Claire Boothe Luce Professorship for the next five years.

In an article submitted for publication to the journal Transportation, Kockelman wrote that SUVs are classified as light-duty trucks (LDTs), thus allowing them to avoid a host of passenger car regulations. Among these regulations are gas-guzzler taxes, safety standards and more stringent emissions and fuel-economy standards.

The result is that the average new pickup truck or SUV enjoys a $4,400 subsidy relative to regular sedans. This “subsidy,” along with higher household incomes, have fueled the enormous surge in sales of SUVs. In 1996 alone, SUV sales jumped 22 percent. In contrast, passenger vehicle sales actually fell slightly.

“Their popularity has also been aided by relatively low gasoline prices, the desire for greater engine power and the perception that bigger vehicles are safer in crashes,” Kockelman said.

At the root of this issue is the fact that SUVs are classified as light-duty trucks, which have long been held to different standards than passenger cars. (An LDT is defined as weighing up to 8500 pounds.) The disparity dates back to the early 1970s, when fuel economy regulations were adopted with a bias toward LDTs.

At that time, there were concerns about saving domestic truck manufacturing jobs. Lawmakers were convinced that more stringent regulations could mean reduced profits and the doom of certain lines of vehicles. So LDTs were given favorable treatment. Today, they are held to a combined fuel efficiency standard of 20.7 mpg, 25 percent below the passenger standard of 27.5 mpg.

The reason SUVs have been included in the LDT category is that they meet design specifications for off-road use. However, most are used exclusively as passenger vehicles on paved roads.

In 1991, Congress doubled the gas-guzzler tax levels, but exempted LDTs. “This seems like a clear bias in the legislation, but oil prices have been low and political pressure to address such legislation is not great,” Kockelman said.

Adding to this quagmire is the belief that LDTs, and specifically SUVs, are safer than regular passenger vehicles. Research, however, suggests otherwise. In fact, statistics show that LDTs pose a significantly higher danger to people in other vehicles as well as, in many instances, to their own occupants.

The driver of a passenger car that is broadsided by an SUV or pickup truck is at five times greater risk of dying than if the SUV were replaced by a car, Kockelman said. In addition, SUVs and pickups are more prone to rollovers, which account for almost half of all auto-related deaths.

Kockelman quoted an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finding that for every one million registered light SUVs, there were 525 fatalities. And, for every one million passenger vehicles and minivans in the same weight category, there were 280 deaths.

“If you believe that heavier vehicles are safer for their occupants, then in many accident situations you’re right,” Kockelman said. “But, if you believe light-duty trucks are safer for their occupants than heavy cars, you’re wrong.

“Heavy cars are generally substantially safer than LDTs of the same weight for their occupants æ as well as occupants of other vehicles,” she said. “And, cars are more fuel efficient and are held to higher emissions standards æ making them better for the planet’s and our own health.”