SUV casualties within and without
(Our serious, wonky take on the great SUV tire scandal: the Times
passed. Too wonky, maybe? Well, we
tried a different approach too).
Tires are not normally a hot news topic, but they've been
getting their proverbial fifteen minutes lately: Ford
Explorers equipped with tires from Firestone have been
going off the road, apparently because these tires
show an unfortunate tendency to blow up. So far,
119 deaths of Explorer occupants have been attributed
to this phenomenon.
One hundred and nineteen deaths is a sad thing no
matter how you look at it. But it seems, as usual,
that some deaths are more equal than others. The
119 Explorer occupants killed by Firestone have
attracted considerably more attention than the
far larger number of occupants of other kinds
of vehicles who are being killed simply because
they have the misfortune to tangle with an
Explorer or other "sport utility vehicle."
SUV's are heavier, taller, and more rigid
than ordinary cars and inflict more damage
in a collision. When an SUV and a car collide,
the car occupants are several times more likely
to die than when two cars crash.
author of a study commissioned by the National
Highway Transportation Safety Administration
(NHTSA) has calculated that some 950 "excess"
deaths occur each year due to the presence of
SUV's on the road instead of a corresponding
number of ordinary cars.
If you divide that number by the roughly 16
million SUV's on the road, you come up with
an average "excess" death toll of 60 other
road users per million SUV's -- "excess"
meaning that these are deaths which would
not have occurred if the SUV's had been
By comparison, the 119 Explorer occupants
killed over four years by their exploding
tires, divided by the roughly three million
Explorers equipped with these tires, works
out to a fatality rate of 10 per year per
If we assume that Explorers
are roughly as deadly to other road users
as are other SUV's, this implies that even
with the pyrotechnic tires, Explorers are
still six times as dangerous to other road
users as they are to their occupants.
(These figures don't take into account
"excess" deaths among pedestrians and
bicyclists due to SUV's, which NHTSA
hasn't bothered to study but are likely
to be numerous.)
It isn't clear how many of these excess
deaths are due to physical properties of
the SUV -- its greater weight and stiffness
and higher profile -- and how many are
due to the way these vehicles are driven.
SUV marketing projects a "king of the road"
image, and daily experience suggests that
SUV drivers have taken the hint con brio.
But for the dead, it doesn't much matter
whether they've been killed by hubris at
the wheel or hubris at the drawing board;
either way, they're still dead.
Those who have come to hate and fear the
sight of these ridiculous but deadly
behemoths may be tempted to indulge in
a spot of Schadenfreude over the tire
imbroglio. This would be hard-hearted,
of course, but it would also be less
constructive than some legitimate anger:
why is Congress so agog over the plight
of Explorer owners who are getting killed,
but indifferent to all the people they're
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