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06 October 2015

Trading Legroom for Lives: SUV's and the Other Guy

I caught an interesting piece online recently about how automobile fatality rates are higher for those who are economically disadvantaged. Even more, the rates are increasing. Those with lower levels of education were about 2.5 times more likely to die in 1995 and 4.3 times in 2010. The authors point to several discrepancies as possible explanations for this, including older/newer cars, proximity of a trauma centers, road conditions, and safety infrastructure. What the authors don't address, however, is the possibility that the cars' size might also be a factor, a topic that I've been haranguing on for years. Here is my case for this.

Here are some data from the Kelley Blue Book. The most popular SUV in 2015 was the Jeep Wrangler, which sells new for about $24,500 and gets about 18 MPG. The most popular pickup in 2015 was the Toyota Tacoma Access Cab, which sells new for about $21,300 and gets about 21 MPG. The most fuel efficient (non-hybrid/non-electric) sedan in 2015 was the Honda Civic, which sells new for about $17,500 and gets about 33 MPG. Smaller cars are greener.[1] Smaller cars are cheaper.

When I speak out against big vehicles, people assume that I am going to make the pro-environmental argument. That, however, is only part of the issue. If smaller cars tend to cost less, it stands to reason that they are more likely to be purchased by those with lower levels of income; larger vehicles are only affordable to the relatively affluent. One rationalization for purchasing larger vehicles is that they are "safer." On this point, people are generally correct that larger vehicles tend to rate better in crash tests, but an important question is, safer for whom? While SUV's are safer for those in the SUV, SUV's are more likely to cause fatalities in the other vehicle, with car drivers 7.6 times more likely to die than SUV drivers in such collisions.[2] Those who are economically advantaged enough to be able to choose to purchase a larger vehicle make a choice to value their own individual safety, comfort, and convenience (and that of their immediate family) over those who are relatively economically disadvantaged and, moreover, to externalize the safety risks inherent to automobile travel onto the economically disadvantaged.

In the absence of regulation and in a system where (some) people have a "choice" over what type of vehicle to purchase, consumers have several ethical questions with which to wrestle:

  • Does the extra legroom in your big vehicle justify the reality that you're more likely to kill someone else on the road?
  • Does the extra luggage and cargo that you're able to haul around really justify risking other's lives?
  • Are there no low-profile vehicles, like station wagons, that might offer a safer alternative to your SUV?
  • Should one's safety be at all related to her socioeconomic status?
  • Is your life more valuable than the other guy's?

[1] In general, larger cars are fuel inefficient compared to smaller cars. Basic physics should be enough to convince us of this: it takes more energy to accelerate a larger mass, and since mass and volume are generally directly related for cars (i.e. heavier cars are also bigger), it also takes more energy to overcome the increased friction that moving mass encounters. If you question this, here are some data to support the claim. I think that most people accept this, that SUV's and pickup trucks are less than green.

[2] See Mayrose, James and Dietrich Jehle. 2002. "Vehicle Weight and Fatality Risk for Sport Utility Vehicle—versus—Passenger Car CrashesJournal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care 53(4):751-753. Additional coverage here and here.

UPDATE (10/19/2015): A related read: The Geography of Car Deaths in America: The U.S. is a nation divided not just by how people get around, but by how fast they drive.

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