A theme in writings about SUV’s (see here for a recent New Yorker article) is that consumers tend to overestimate SUV safety and grossly misunderstand the factors behind auto safety. The basic point is that safety comes from avoiding risky situations and quickly responding to danger. It turns out SUV’s tend to lull drivers into a false sense of safety and they respond more slowly to danger (e.g., SUV’s come to a complete stop much more slowly than many other popular types of cars). Because SUV’s are cosmetically altered trucks, they don’t have many basic safety features now standard in small cars or minivans, so you are more likely to die in an SUV accident than in another car (an anti-SUV site collects some Insurance industry reports). Consumer Reports has for many years argued that SUV’s are quite likely to tip over.
One response I’ve seen is to avidly defend consumer choice (see here for Car and Driver’s Brock Yate’s defense, or here for Peter Klein’s comment), or to minimize the SUV’s dangerous design. I think this misses a basic point. When events are infrequent (like fatal auto crashes), or when cause and effect are hard to link, people can opt to believe anything they want. All economics tells us is that markets are extremely good at responding to possibly erroneous consumer beliefs.
My take on this entire issue is that the central issue is liability. In general, you can’t hold someone accountable for the fatalities created by the use of a car with less then optimal safety features, any more than you can hold somebody accountable for the extra risk created by using a less than best bicycle, motorcycle or other device. In short, there is not much people can do about SUV safety because some people will always want to make the trade-off between safety and other product features.
Since the insurance industry is still willing to insure SUV’s, I wonder if the risk associated with them is tolerable given our current legal and economic standards. I invite knowledgable readers to email me information about how much more it costs to insure SUV vs. other vehicles.