Study: Lighter cars mean more deaths
By David Kiley, USA TODAY
DETROIT — Reducing the weight of vehicles, mostly to improve fuel economy, has resulted in more traffic deaths, especially in small cars, federal regulators said Tuesday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said a new study proves what the agency and many others have been saying: Until pickups and sport-utility vehicles are designed to cause less damage to smaller vehicles in crashes, occupants of the gas-guzzling heavier trucks will be safer than those in more fuel-efficient, lighter vehicles.
Driver fatalities per billion vehicle miles from 1996 to 2000 in 1996 to 1999 models:
Very small cars 11.56
Small cars 7.85
Compact pickups 6.82
Midsize SUVs 6.73
Small SUVs 5.68
Midsize cars 5.26
Large pickups 4.07
Large SUVs 3.79
Large cars 3.30
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
The study was done as NHTSA prepares to write new fuel economy rules and side-impact crash standards, said agency spokesman Rae Tyson.
While some environmentalists fear automakers will use the study to ward off stricter fuel efficiency standards, Tyson said it should not be interpreted to mean that fuel economy and safety are mutually exclusive. "It is very possible for SUVs and light trucks to go on a diet, without compromising safety."
The new study contradicts one the agency did in 1997, which concluded that vehicle weight reductions didn't increase fatality risk. NHTSA engineers have long doubted that study's methodology and conclusions.
The new study found:
• A weight reduction of 100 pounds in the heaviest trucks and SUVs, those weighing more than 5,000 pounds, could save hundreds of lives a year.
• Weight reductions in trucks and SUVs weighing less than 5,000 pounds and most passenger cars could mean more fatalities for occupants of those vehicles.
• The most fuel efficient and often least expensive cars, the very small ones, have a fatality rate twice that of small and midsize SUVs and four times that of minivans.
• In collisions that involve the heaviest pickups and SUVs, 83% of fatalities are in the lighter vehicles.
The study shows that when trucks weighing 3,870 pounds or more lose 100 pounds of weight, fatalities in those vehicles increase about 3% in rollovers and in collisions with fixed objects. But those deaths are offset by lives saved when the trucks are in collisions with lighter-weight vehicles.
The report confirms what automakers have long known, "that downsizing and down-weighting vehicles has an adverse impact on safety," said Eron Shosteck, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman.
But Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and executive director of Public Citizen, said: "NHTSA's study is based on a comparison of the safety records of vehicles differing by 100 pounds, ignoring differences in safety design, which other studies have shown to matter more than weight."