WASHINGTON -- We recently have been treated to another spate of media hysteria over sport-utility vehicles and their tendency to roll over more quickly than cars, the latest courtesy of a PBS "Frontline" television show -- one of the most biased pieces of TV journalism I've seen in a long while. 1,020 You might conclude otherwise. My opinion is based on the following:
* The show gives the impression that you are more likely to die in the rollover of a mid-size sport-utility vehicle, given its focus on the Ford Explorer and similar models, than you are to die in any other car or truck on the road.
That is an extremely selective and misleading reading of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System's numbers.
The truth is that you are more likely to die in rollovers of small pickup trucks and small sport-utility vehicles (which are not to be confused with relatively low-riding, car-based/SUV hybrids such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota Rav4).
Mid-size and larger SUVs, as a group, have a better overall, real-world safety record than most vehicles on the road.
Are SUVs as a group more apt to roll over than cars? Of course. Anything with a higher center of gravity -- which is the case for most SUVs, pickups, vans and other light trucks -- is more likely to roll over than anything with a lower center of gravity, which is the case for most cars.
That is not a "hidden history" or concealed truth, as "Frontline" contends. It is a matter of physics and general science. Perhaps, if the show's producers had checked with their high school children, they would have known that.
* "Frontline" also takes great pains to blame the Republican administrations of former presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush for allegedly thwarting efforts to declare SUVs unsafe or to establish federal standards to reduce the possibility of rollovers. The program says nothing about the Democratic administrations of presidents Carter or Clinton, neither of which found sufficient evidence to take supposedly suspect SUVs off the road.
* "Frontline" made no real attempt to interview people who disagreed with the main theme of its program, that all SUVs are inherently unsafe. Correction. "Frontline" did interview Ron DeFore, the former NHTSA director of consumer affairs under former NHTSA administrator Diane Steed, who was maligned as a safety obstructionist in the piece. Steed was unavailable for an interview on the one day "Frontline"'s producers showed up for a taping, because she was ill with the flu. But they did interview DeFore, for nearly two hours. Funny. Not one reference to DeFore's comments appeared in the "Frontline" show.
"Frontline" also interviewed Jason Vines, the former vice president of communications for Ford Motor Co. No comments from Vines appeared in the piece, either. Instead, we were left with the very clear impression that Steed was unwilling to talk because she had something to hide. That's fair and objective journalism?
I could go on. But I'll stop my critique of the "news" show with what turned out to be its most egregious error. "Frontline" suggested that the danger of marauding SUVs would have been greatly reduced if only those gutless Republican administrations (again, it overlooked the Democrats) had done something to increase CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards for SUVs.
The suggestion was that increased CAFE standards would bring about decreased SUV weight and mass and make the highways safer for everyone.
I checked with Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which does auto safety testing and research on behalf of the nation's major auto insurers. IIHS is no friend of vehicles that cause its clients to spend big bucks on death, injury and property damage claims.
"Frontline" interviewed O'Neill, too. But the program's producers and reporters apparently forgot to ask him about the institute's views on how higher CAFE standards would affect SUVs. Had they done so, O'Neill probably would have told them what he told me.
"Higher CAFE would increase SUV rollovers because it would reduce the size of SUVs. Smaller SUVs roll over more than larger ones," O'Neill said.
Phone calls and e-mails indicate that many of you are confused by, and frightened over much of this. Some of you called to ask if you should get rid of SUVs you just bought. My answer is no.
As for your other questions:
Q. Are SUVs more prone to roll over than cars?
A. Yes. For reasons of physics. Higher center of gravity rolls faster than lower.
Q. Am I more likely to die in an SUV rollover than I am to die in a car?
A. Not necessarily. Missing from all of the statistics on rollovers are what percentage of fatalities involved unbelted victims. If you are unbelted in any rollover accident you are more likely to die than you are wearing a properly latched seat belt.
Q. How can I reduce my chances of an SUV rollover?
A. Do not overload your vehicle. Do not increase the inherent top-heaviness of SUVs by exceeding the load limits of roof racks. Make sure that your tires are properly inflated.
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