Externalizing death:
SUV casualties within and without

by Charles Komanoff and Michael J. Smith

(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.

Indeed, the 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 cars instead.

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 million Explorers.

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 killing?

Essays and reflections -- contents