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Frequently Asked Questions

General Consumer FAQs

15-Passenger Van FAQs

SUV FAQs

Fuel Economy FAQs

Child Safety FAQs

Auto Industry FAQs

Other FAQs

Email us at autosafety@citizen.org with any additional questions or for more information.


General Consumer FAQs

Where can I find vehicle safety information?

Several sources offer vehicle safety information.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) both crash test a limited number of vehicles.  You can view the results of these tests on their Web sites at http://www.safercar.gov/ and http://www.hwysafety.org/vehicle_ratings/ratings.htm, respectively.

In most cases, the safety ratings show a vehicle’s crash test performance ratings above and beyond the government’s minimum safety standard. Be aware, however, that the NHTSA rollover ratings are awarded despite the fact that no minimum safety standard for rollover yet exists. A low-scoring vehicle on the rollover ratings may be a very dangerous vehicle indeed.  Click here for additional information on rollover safety and for Public Citizen’s comments on the government’s rollover rating system.

IIHS also offers an analysis of death rates by vehicle on their Web site at http://www.hwysafety.org/sr/pdfs/sr4003.pdf, and Consumers Union offers auto safety information on its Web site at:

http://www.consumersunion.org/i/Product_Safety/Automobiles/index.html

Additionally, “The Car Book” by Jack Gillis presents safety ratings, but also much more information which you may find useful when purchasing an automobile.  You can purchase the book at http://www.autosafety.org/carbooks.php.

What should I do if I think my vehicle has a defect? 

If you believe the problem with your automobile may be dangerous to you or others, it is important to fix it immediately—even if the company is not sponsoring a recall.  Unfortunately, the up-front costs will be yours to pay, but you may be able to be reimbursed for these costs if a recall is initiated.  It is possible to obtain reimbursement for repairs made on recalled parts prior to the initiation of the recall, but reimbursement is only offered for repairs made within a designated period of time.  Make sure to keep all documentation of the repairs you have made, and read the reimbursement information below for more details.

Recalls are initiated either voluntarily by the manufacturer or may be required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) if the manufacturer will not voluntarily issue one.  In both cases, the decision to issue a recall is made based in part on complaints received from auto-owners about the problem.  This gives you two steps you can take to try to get a recall initiated: one, you can contact the manufacturer; and two, you can contact NHTSA.  You can file a complaint with NHTSA by filling out a Vehicle Owners Questionnaire (VOQ) at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/ivoq/default.htm.  (If you fill out a VOQ, please read our statement below on the government's handling of this form.)  Your vehicle’s manufacturer’s contact information should be available on the Web.

If you think your vehicle has a defect, it is important to file a complaint with NHTSA so that if there is a defect, the agency can address it before people are hurt or killed.  It is also important to contact the manufacturer about the problem so they have a record of it.

On NHTSA’s Web site you can search the agency’s database of recalls, defect investigations, and consumer complaints for problems similar to yours.  Below are links to the pages where you can perform each search.

Recall search: http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/recalls/recallsearch.cfm

Defect investigation search: http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/defect/defectsearch.cfm

Customer complaint search: http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/complain/complaintsearch.cfm

VOQ Information:

Unfortunately, when you fill out the VOQ, your name and address will not be made part of a public record.  Instead this information will only be given if you consent on the form's one check box to the auto industry.  Although Public Citizen and other consumer advocacy organizations would use this information to assist NHTSA with its investigations, and although this information used to be routinely disclosed, since 1995 NHTSA has kept it secret. 

Because the agency may not make the fullest use of your VOQ and may never follow up with consumers about problems, we ask you to join our campaign to insist that the public is given equal access to this information.  It is important that groups like Public Citizen have access to the names and addresses of consumers with defect complaints so that we can help you and others to hold NHTSA and manufacturers accountable for fixing safety defects. 

If you believe that this special treatment for the auto industry should be ended, please tell NHTSA, in the body of your VOQ complaint at the very end of the form, that you would like to have your name and address publicly listed and that a checkbox to give consent for the name and address of complainants to be made publicly available should be included on the agency's VOQ form. 

We suggest the following language: 

“I would like my name and address to be publicly released so that others may assist the agency in its investigation.  I also ask that the agency add a checkbox to enable others to provide this consent, thus ending its unfair policy of maintaining this information in secret for all but the auto industry.”

Please send us a message if you ask NHTSA to publicly release your information.

Will I be reimbursed for fixes I make to my vehicle if the problem is later covered under a vehicle recall?

Perhaps. Following the highly publicized Ford/Firestone debacle, Congress passed a law that was intended to allow consumers to be reimbursed for fixes made to their vehicles prior to an actual recall. In October 2002, the government finalized the regulation that sets up the rules for reimbursement, but they are very complicated and do not give consumers easy access to the money.

Save all the information (paperwork, receipts, etc.) from your maintenance work, and click here for additional information on what to do to increase your chances of getting reimbursed.

Click here for more information.

Where can I find a lawyer?

You may want to search the Association of Trial Lawyers of America directory.  You can access the directory online at http://www.atlanet.org/MemberServices/Tier3/directory.aspx.  The Center for Auto Safety provides a state-by-state list of lawyers and vehicle safety experts on its Web site at http://www.autosafety.org/lawyersandexperts.php.  Also, the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) allows consumers to search for a lawyer by state on its Web site at http://www.consumerlaw.org/advice/consumer_info.shtml.

I think my vehicle may be a lemon.  How do I receive compensation?

Federal and state lemon laws provide consumers with legal recourse in seeking compensation for a lemon.  If you visit the Center for Auto Safety’s Web page at http://www.autosafety.org/lemonlaws.php, you will find a listing of state lemon laws, including the criteria a car must meet if it is to qualify as a lemon.  Also on the page is a link to a listing of attorneys you can contact if you wish to seek legal counsel.

I have a 1994-1995 Nissan Altima – what should I do to fix the defect in the defective airbag that has the potential to blind or injure people riding in my passenger seat?

On April 24, 2003 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced an agreement by Nissan to replace dangerous passenger side airbags in 1994 and some models of 1995 Nissan Altimas. You should have already received your letter from Nissan – if you have not, you should go immediately to your local Nissan dealership to have your passenger side airbag modules replaced free of charge. No one should ride in the passenger side of these Altimas until the airbag is fixed.

Click here for additional information.

Is there a way to find out how many miles my vehicle gets (or is supposed to get) for every gallon (its fuel economy)?

Yes. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a Fuel Economy Guide available online at www.fueleconomy.gov that allows viewers to look at and compare the fuel economy level for most vehicles produced in the U.S. and to see how vehicles rank based on their emissions levels.

Click here for additional information regarding Public Citizen’s efforts to raise fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks.

15-Passenger Van FAQs

I am worried about the safety hazards associated with my 15-passenger van – do you have any advice?

Ideally, you should take your 15-passenger van out-of-service and use a small school bus or crash-tested minivan for group transportation. Public Citizen does not recommend the conversion of 15-passenger vans to dual rear wheels by anyone other than the original manufacturer or its dealer.

Should you temporarily need to continue to use these unsafe vehicles, the following recommendations are based on those made by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the GuideOne Insurance for lowering the risk of rollover in 15-passenger vans:

  • Screen all drivers: it is best to require that drivers obtain a commercial driver’s license;
  • Remove the rear seat of the vans to reduce loading behind the vehicle’s rear axle;
  • Limit the capacity to 9 persons including the driver, which dramatically reduces the risk of rollover;
  • Load forward seats first at all times;
  • Communicate with passengers, parents and other parties about the high risks;
  • Do not tow anything behind the vehicle or load the roof;
  • Conduct a full safety inspection of the vehicle, including all tires, pre- and post-trip (tire blowouts are particularly dangerous and often lead to rollovers);
  • Include safety items on board, such as a fire extinguisher, first aid kit and cellular phone (which should not be used during driving);
  • Require all passengers and the driver to wear proper safety restraints any time the vehicle is in motion.

Click here for more information

How do I retrofit my 15-passenger van with dual rear wheels? 

Public Citizen does not recommend the conversion of 15-passenger vans to dual rear wheels by anyone other than the original manufacturer or its dealer. Aftermarket shops may not fully understand the complexity and vehicle impact of such a retrofit and will likely require a waiver of their own liability as a condition of conversion. Because the manufacturers are responsible for the safety hazards afflicting 15-passenger vans, they should be the ones to remedy the problem.

If you are still interested in retrofitting your vehicle, you may want to contact Van Angels.  Visit their Web site at www.vanangels.com.   Van Angels offer free retrofits for 15-passenger van owners on a demonstrated-need basis.

What are the laws governing the use of 15-passenger vans for school-related transportation in my state?

You can find a list of state laws regarding the use of 15-passenger for school-related transportation at:
  http://www.stnonline.com/stn/nonconformingvans/statefedlaws/large_vans.htm

The information presented on the page is from a 1997 National School Transportation Association survey, and so may be out of date.  Public Citizen does not guarantee the accuracy of the information provided. 

Wouldn’t driver education be the best solution to 15-passenger van dangers?

Though driver error may contribute to 15-passenger-van rollovers, the fact of the matter is that the design of these vans makes them exceedingly prone to rollover crashes when heavily loaded.  In fact, in a warning issued on the dangers of 15-passenger vans, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cited research that found that heavily loaded 15-passenger vans had a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of those that were lightly loaded.

Public Citizen supports driver education, but study after study shows that general education efforts are utterly ineffective in making any long-term impact upon safety-related habits and choices.  An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study, which can be read at http://www.hwysafety.org/srpdfs/sr3605.pdf, found that educating drivers about safe-driving behaviors such as obeying speed limits, wearing seat belts, and obeying stop signs usually does not result in behavior changes.  To be effective, education campaigns must be accompanied by aggressive legal penalties and the enforcement of penalties.  In addition, the focus of the education effort must be to amplify the impact of the deterrent effect of penalties, rather than to raise awareness in general about safety hazards. Each of the following three ingredients has been discovered, time and time again, to be crucial to a successful behavioral change effort:

  1. Primary, strong penalties under law for failing to comply with the safety measure;
  2. Stepped-up enforcement of penalties; and

Pervasive publicity about both penalties and enhanced enforcement by authorities.

As for education that would aim to increase driver skill, the IIHS study cited research conducted in the early 1970s that found a group of highly skilled race drivers to have a worse on-the-road driving record than a group of average motorists.  Though the race drivers were more skilled than the average motorists, their higher level of skill did not translate into safer driving.  And so it does not appear that education aimed at improving driver skill would necessarily improve highway safety.

If the carnage on our highways from 15-passenger-van rollovers is to end, the solution to this tragic problem is unlikely to be found in educating drivers to be safer or more skillful.  Simply educating drivers about safe driving behaviors has not been effective in changing driver behavior, and education aiming to improve driver skill may even have the result of producing less safe drivers.  What is needed, rather, is a design change in these dangerous vehicles that will address the flaw that makes them so prone to rollover.  Our solution is that manufacturers equip 15-passenger vans with dual rear wheels. 

SUV FAQ’s

Aren’t all of the problems related to SUVs really just based on the poor driving ability of their drivers?

Unfortunately, no. Both research and real-world crash data demonstrate that SUVs are not well designed to maneuver safely, even with an experienced or trained driver behind the wheel. A January 2003 government report on driver response to tire blowouts and the likelihood of rollover in this scenario showed that even when the test drivers knew when their vehicles were going to experience a blowout, they lost control 30 percent of the time. (Click here to view this study.)  Additional research, done by trial attorneys in the wake of the Ford/Firestone debacle, showed that even a trained, professional stunt drivers were unable to prevent Explorers from rolling over when a timed and expected tire blow out occurred.

Fortunately for the highly trained test driver, his vehicle was equipped with additional crash protections to assure his safety in a rollover crash. But millions of American SUV occupants drive vehicles each day without these protections: Between 1991 and 2001, 15,594 of them died in rollovers.

SUVs are manufactured in ways that make them more tippy and prone to rollover than other vehicles (a high center of gravity and narrow track width). Most SUVs are also not designed with proper crash protections that would help to keep occupants safe when rollover crashes occur (roofs are weak, most types of airbags will not deploy during a rollover, and windows and doors are often not strong enough to hold occupants inside, opening portals for ejection). Among the manufacturers, only Volvo has started to design an SUV that is less likely to roll over and that is more crash protective when it does roll, showing that manufacturing problems and shoddy design can be fixed with more thoughtful technology.

Additionally, regardless of the training of the SUV driver, others on the road are suffering unnecessarily because of the aggressive and incompatible design of SUVs. SUVs are three times more likely than passenger cars to kill occupants in the cars they strike. This is not merely a weight or size issue. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has shown that for every million registered cars weighing between 3,500 and 3,900 pounds, 45 deaths occur in vehicles struck by these cars. For every million registered utility vehicle in the same weight class, 76 deaths occur in vehicles struck by the SUV (See http://www.hwysafety.org/srpdfs/sr3409.pdf ). SUVs could be, and should be, designed to be less aggressive vehicles so that no vehicle on the road poses an unnecessary threat to other drivers.

Are SUV drivers more likely to drink and less likely to wear their belts than other drivers?

Nope. SUV occupants are just as likely as car occupants to wear safety belts.

  • Government belt-use statistics show that 78 percent of SUV and van occupants and 77 percent of passenger car occupants wear their belts.6
  • In fatal rollovers, the most deadly of crashes, SUV and passenger car belt-use rates are virtually identical, yet these crashes account for 61 percent of SUV occupant deaths and only 24 percent of car occupant deaths.7 

And, car drivers are just as likely as SUV drivers to have been drinking in fatal crashes.

  • Car and SUV drivers were just as likely to be drunk in fatal crashes – 23 percent of car drivers and 22 percent of SUV drivers had a Blood Alcohol Content level of above 0.08 in 2001 fatal crashes.8 
  • In 2002, the percentage of alcohol-related deaths for both SUV and car occupants was virtually the same – 40.9 percent and 40.0 percent respectively.9 

Do SUV drivers actually use their vehicles for their "utility" driven purpose? Don’t drivers need them for safe off-roading and traveling in hazardous conditions?

Some do, but many do not. Consider the following:

  • Despite being marketed to consumers as rugged, go-anywhere vehicles, only 1 to 10 percent of SUV owners use their vehicles for off-road driving or towing.10
  • J.C. Collins, Ford’s top marketing manager for SUVs said "[t]he only time those SUVs are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a.m."11 
  • In April 2003, 40 state Attorneys General called on SUV manufacturers to immediately stop their misleading advertisements claiming that SUVs have the same handling as passenger cars, or that SUVs can handle emergency procedures safely at fast speeds. The letter was one result of a $51.5 million settlement with Ford over deceptive advertising of its Explorer.12 

Click here for more information. 

What is the impact of the "SUV" explosion on the American highway?

The rise in SUVs and other trucks has erased many of the gains made by decades worth of automobile safety improvements. In a report on the risks of rollover crashes, NHTSA explains that, "the increase in light truck occupant fatalities accounts for the continued high level of overall occupant fatalities, having offset the decline in traffic deaths of passenger car occupants."13

  • New federal data shows that SUV and pickup truck rollover fatalities accounted for 53 percent of the increase in traffic deaths between 2001 and 2002.14 
  • A former NHTSA Administrator estimated in 1997 that the aggressive design of light trucks (a category including SUVs, pickup trucks, vans and minivans) has killed 2,000 additional people needlessly each year.15
  • In front-to-front crashes, SUVs are more than 4 times more deadly than cars and pickups are over 6.2 times more deadly.16 
  • In front-to-side crashes, SUVs are more than twice as deadly as cars and pickups are almost four times as deadly.
  • According to a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, when a car was struck in the side by a pickup, van, or SUV, the fatality was 20.8 times more likely to have been in the passenger car.
  • In a head-on collision between a car and a light truck, the fatality was 3.3 times more likely to be among car occupants.17 

Click here for more information. 

Are SUVs necessarily safer for their occupants than smaller cars?

No. Many argue that the incompatibility between SUVs and cars, which is the cause of many highway deaths each year, is offset by the safety provided to SUV drivers in a crash.

Unfortunately, for the SUV occupant, this is often untrue. Even the auto industry will concede that SUVs are more dangerous in rollover crashes. According to the government, SUVs are three times more likely to kill their occupants in rollovers than cars.18 While these crashes are relatively rare, casualties from them are not - rollovers account for two thirds of all SUV occupant deaths. SUV rollovers accounted for 53 percent of the increase in traffic fatalities in 2002. And, children are particularly at risk in these crashes as SUVs have the highest rate of rollover-related child fatalities of any vehicle.

Furthermore, it is also a misconception that bigger vehicles are always safer. For example, Chevy Blazers have a far higher driver fatality rate (122 driver deaths per million 1997-2001 models sold) than mid-sized Ford Tauruses (78) or even subcompact Volkswagen Jettas (47).19 SUVs often have stiff frames and few crumple zones so when they are involved in an impact, their occupants suffer a more intense "crash pulse" than they would in other, softer and more impact-absorbing vehicles.

Click here for more information. 

I’m confused by your www.BetterSuv.org Web site.  Aren’t SUVs inherently dangerous gas-guzzlers?  How could there be a better SUV?

SUVs are not inherently dangerous gas guzzlers.  SUVs can be made safer and more fuel efficient.  For example, the Volvo XC90 is equipped with safety features that make it less likely to rollover, better able to protect occupants in a rollover, and less aggressive than other SUVs in crashes with smaller vehicles.  As for fuel economy, the Ford Escape hybrid gets 36 miles to the gallon.  SUVs need not be as dangerous and bad on fuel economy as they commonly are now, but manufacturers continue to make them that way.  SUVs aren’t the problem, poorly designed SUVs are. 

Follow this link to visit our BetterSUV Web page:  www.bettersuv.org

In a crash, does an SUV subject occupants in a smaller vehicle to greater risk of injury or death?  

In a crash, larger, heavier vehicles inflict an inordinate amount of damage on smaller vehicles.   The extra weight of heavy vehicles subjects the occupants of other vehicles to greater forces in a crash.   Also, vehicles with larger frames often fail to engage the safety protections, such as bumpers, of smaller vehicles. 

In frontal collisions between a car and a SUV, the car driver is 4.3 times more likely to die than the SUV driver. SUVs are also more than twice as lethal as cars in side-impact crashes with cars.  Some may take these statistics as evidence of the safety of SUVs.  This is a complete misinterpretation, as it is really evidence of how dangerous they are—to the occupants of the cars they collide with.  

Follow this link for more information about vehicle aggressivity and incompatibility:

http://www.citizen.org/autosafety/suvsafety/incomp_agg/

Is the auto industry invested in selling SUVs above other vehicles?

Yes. Cut-rate designs based on pickup truck chassis and low fuel economy requirements for SUVs generate very high profit margins for these "cash cows" of Detroit. Consider the following:

  • While manufacturers make only a 3 percent profit on cars, they make a 15 to 20 percent profit on SUVs.20 
  • SUV and pickup truck sales account for nearly all of the profits of the Big Three auto companies.21 For example, in 2002 General Motors generated 90 percent of its profits from SUVs and pickups.22 

Click here for more information. 

What tax breaks have been promised by Bush as gifts to small businesses that buy SUVs?

Thanks to the recent Bush tax cut, when businesses purchase an SUV (or other light truck) over 6,000 lbs., they can immediately deduct up to $100,000 dollars from their taxable income. These special interest tax breaks do not preclude businesses from taking the standard 20 percent deduction annually over five years. It is estimated that the original SUV tax break, recently expanded by Bush, which capped initial deduction at $25,000, cost the federal government between $840 million and $987 million yearly, making it one of the biggest tax breaks, per capita, in the U.S.23

Click here for more information. 

Fuel Economy FAQs

Do people really care about fuel economy?

Yes. Consider the following facts:

  • Too-high fuel consumption ranked second in a list of all driver complaints gathered in a May 2003 J.D. Power and Associates poll.24 
  • Ninety-three percent of Americans believe the United States should require cars to get better gas mileage to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.25 
  • Eighty-one percent of consumers "approve of the government requiring car manufacturers to meet higher fuel efficiency standards than they do now."26 
  • Sixty-three percent of Americans polled said they would be willing to pay 3 percent (or nearly $900 on a $30,000-vehicle) more for their sport utility vehicles in order to solve emissions problems stemming from their use.27 
  • The waiting lists at Honda and Toyota dealerships for hybrid vehicles are now up to 10 months long.28

Click here for more information.

What impact do American automobiles have on U.S. oil consumption and pollution?

  • U.S. Passenger vehicles consume 8 million barrels of oil every day, constituting about 40 percent of all U.S. oil consumption.29
  • Between 1990 and 1999 oil consumption in the U.S. rose 15 percent and American oil imports rose 40 percent. If that trend continues, by 2020 64 percent of oil used in the U.S. will be imported.30
  • The U.S. currently spends almost $200,000 per minute to purchase foreign oil.31 
  • U.S. passenger vehicles alone produce more carbon dioxide pollution than all but three countries worldwide (China, Russia, and Japan) – amounting to almost 5 percent of total worldwide CO2 emissions.32 
  • Air pollution caused by cars and light trucks produce a literally breathtaking amount of U.S. air pollution, second only to electricity generation.33 
  • During the 1970’s oil crisis, the original fuel economy standards that had been strongly opposed by manufacturers, helped to save the industry from the onslaught of foreign competition during the 1979 oil crisis and the high interest rates that followed.

Click here for more information.

Will increased fuel economy standards force Americans to drive "purple people eaters" or other tiny vehicles?

No. Manufacturers have always "cried wolf" about their inability to make improvements in fuel economy and have historically claimed that any improvements would result in a sub-sized vehicle fleet. Consider the following:

  • Manufacturers made the same claims in the 1974 CAFE debates. Ford claimed that under the proposed standard they would only be able to produce "sub-Pinto sized vehicles."34 Daimler/Chrysler argued that the standards would lead to the outlawing of numerous engines and car models, in effect restricting the industry to produce only "sub compact size cars – or even smaller ones."35 And General Motors, calling CAFE "an unjustified interference with individual freedom," claimed that their sales would be reduced to vehicles "smaller, lighter, and less powerful than today’s compact Chevy Nova."36 
  • Regardless of these protests, manufacturers doubled the fuel economy of passenger vehicles between 1977 and 1990 and continue to make large and mid-sized vehicles.
  • A Department of Energy study showed that over 85 percent of fuel economy improvements were achieved through technology – not by weight reduction or a limit of vehicle choices.37 
  • Thanks to the reality of technological ingenuity, market dynamics and ever increasing competitiveness among manufacturers, consumers have more vehicle choices now than ever before.38 

Click here for more information.

Are bigger vehicles necessarily safer?

No. Design, not size, is what determines a vehicle’s safety. Big vehicles, particularly SUVs and pickups, are incredibly dangerous both to their own occupants and to others on the road. Consider the following:

SUVs and Pickups are more likely to rollover, killing their occupants:

  • According to the government, 61 percent of SUV occupant fatalities and 45 percent of pickup truck fatalities were rollover related, compared to 23 percent of car fatalities.39 
  • SUV and pickup rollovers accounted for 52 percent of the increase in traffic fatalities in 2002.

SUVs and Pickups are incompatible with cars, and are highly aggressive in crashes:

  • One former NHTSA Administrator estimated in 1997 that the aggressive design of light trucks has killed 2,000 additional people needlessly each year.40
  • A more specific analysis found that 1,434 passenger car drivers who were killed in collisions with light trucks would have lived if they had been hit instead by a passenger car of the same weight as the light truck, even under the same crash conditions.41 
  • In a head-on collision between a car and a light truck, car occupants are 3.3 times more likely to die than are the light truck occupants.42 

Click here for more information.

Are weight-based standards a good substitute for the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) system?

No. Weight-based standards will create incentives for manufacturers to make vehicles heavier, resulting in increased fuel use. Because weight based fuel economy standards establish lower requirements for heavier vehicles, automakers would have an incentive to add weight to their vehicles and would be able to sell more heavy gas guzzlers. The result would be a decrease in fuel economy and an increase in our oil dependence.

Increasing existing light truck standards can achieve the desired safety/fuel economy goal. Simply increasing the standard for light trucks will result in safety benefits similar to or better than those purported to result from weight-based standards. Because saving weight on the heaviest vehicles is a cost effective fuel economy option, the heaviest vehicles are likely to get lighter and the lightest vehicles will stay the same, or even increase in weight and size as it becomes easier for the fleet as a whole to reach the fuel economy target.

Click here for more information.

Child Safety FAQs

When is it safe for a child to use an adult safety belt?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that adult safety belts should only be used once children can sit with their backs flush against the vehicle seat and their legs hanging over the edge of seat.  This is approximately when a child is eight years old and 4’9”.  Children not meeting these requirements should be restrained in a rear-facing infant seat until they are at least one year old and weigh twenty pounds, a forward-facing toddler seat when they are between the ages of one and four and weigh between twenty and forty pounds, and in an adult safety belt but using a child booster seat when they are between the ages of four and eight and weigh between forty and eighty pounds.  All children should be restrained in the rear seat of a vehicle, especially children in rear-facing infant seats.  NHTSA offers guidelines for properly restraining children at:

http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/childps/csr2001/csrhtml/

Public Citizen released a report on the dangers of improperly secured children which is available at:

http://www.citizen.org/documents/auto3.pdf

How do I know if my child seat is properly installed?

The confusing multitude of child restraints on the market can make properly securing a child a difficult task.   A survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that 73 percent of child restraints are improperly used.   This is especially alarming given that 97 percent of adults believe they are properly using child restrains when securing children. 

The best way to ensure that your child’s safety seat is properly installed is to have it checked by a certified child safety technician.   If you are interested in having your child seat inspected, often free of charge, you can search for an inspection facility near you at:

http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/CPS/CPSFitting/Index.cfm

Also, NHTSA offers tips on how to install a child seat at:

http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/childps/csr2001/csrhtml/

Auto Industry FAQ’s

Wouldn’t auto manufacturers’ voluntary improvements be a better fix to problems like rollover and vehicle incompatibility than government standards?

No. Automakers have long asked legislators and regulators to "trust them" to improve safety. This was an argument Congress specifically considered and rejected when it enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, the Act giving rise to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency that sets auto safety standards. Laws and regulations are the only proven method of meaningfully increasing the safety of the American highway.

The historical path of automakers’ voluntary efforts is paved with broken promises. Consider the following:

  • General Motors promised, in 1970, to voluntarily put air bags in all its vehicles by the mid-l970s. Instead, GM installed just 10,000 in model year 1974 and 1975 vehicles and then discontinued the program.
  • In 2001, Ford, Daimler/Chrysler and GM’s promised to voluntary improve the fuel economy of their SUVs by 25 percent. When the threat of Congressional action on fuel economy receded, these promises were recanted.

In addition, voluntary "standards" violate core principles of democratic accountability and transparency, as they:

  • Involve closed, secret processes and meetings: The public, which is at risk, is shut out of the development of the proposal, which instead is designed in secret by industry working groups;
  • Involve no mechanisms for accountability: The public has no means to secure an independent evaluation of the quality of the industry’s voluntary tests or standards;
  • Lack procedural and judicial oversight: Industry group decision makers are not subject to oversight, compliance with statutory requirements, responsibility for explaining the basis for their decisions, or judicial review of decisions;
  • Lack transparency: The public receives no verification that a particular vehicle actually complies with the industry’s voluntary tests, as they do with government standards that are subject to public compliance testing and enforcement, and there is no vehicle sticker at the point-of-sale to indicate that a standard is met;
  • Lack a baseline for safety: High-income purchasers, who can afford safety extras may be protected, but low-income purchasers remain vulnerable to cost-based decisions by manufacturers;
  • Produce weak and non-binding results: Proposals are invariably weak because they represent the lowest common denominator among companies looking out for their own costs and product plans, and there is no obligation to install technology in compliance with the group standard, meaning that companies can change their minds at will and decide to withdraw any protection offered by the voluntary "standard."

Is the auto industry really the largest spender on advertising in the U.S.?

Yes. The auto industry spends more per year on advertising than any other industry in the United States – more than the next three biggest spenders (financial services, telecommunications, and national restaurant chains) combined.1And this spending has paid off - Per advertising dollar spent, the Big 3 have three times the revenue of the other top ten spenders, averaging $42.30 for every ad dollar spent compared with $13.67 for the other seven companies.2

SUV specific auto spending is also incredibly high. During the last decade, automakers and their dealers spent over $9 billion advertising SUVs. This ever-increasing expenditure rose nine-fold during that time, from $172.5 million in 1990 to $1.5 billion in 2000 – a rise that exceeds, in percentage, the growth of SUVs over the same period.3

Click here for more information.

Do auto manufacturers really oppose auto safety advances?

Yes. For decades, manufacturers have opposed vehicle design changes that would safe lives, protect the occupants of their vehicles and make the U.S. highway safer, usually because they determine that the fixes will be too costly. Manufacturers have historically opposed safety standards, such as airbags and seatbelts, and they continue to hinder safety efforts through their opposition of measures to reduce rollovers, particularly in SUVs and light trucks, and roof crush standards that would help make rollovers more survivable.

Consider the examples below:

  • In 1994, pressure from the industry killed a federal minimum standard on rollover prevention, which would have saved thousands of lives. The key argument automakers used to kill the safety standard was the cost for an SUV-redesign. New data shows that SUV rollovers are now the leading cause of the increased death rates on U.S. highways.
  • Ford imposed secret settlements on killed and injured plaintiffs in Ford Explorer cases throughout the 1990s and never told Federal safety regulators. At least 271 people died in Ford/Firestone crashes in the U.S. alone and over 700 were severely injured.
  • General Motors successfully resisted a recall of 9 million C/K Pickups that had exploding gas tanks which have led to the fiery deaths of over 725 people. GM has reached 331 individual settlement agreements totaling $495 million in payouts.4 
  • Automakers continue to press NHTSA to keep early warning safety defect information, a collection mandated by Congress in the TREAD Act of 2000, a secret from the public.5 After heavy industry lobbying and threats of litigation, the agency has agreed to maintain certain categories of information as secret.

Click here for more information.

If the maximum speed on U.S. highways is 70mph, why do manufacturers produce vehicles that can travel twice that speed?

Because they can. Unfortunately, manufacturers have used decades of vehicle technology in a time of lax fuel economy standards to boost the speed capability of their vehicles while letting the fuel economy stagger. This has produced a vehicle fleet that, according to the EPA, has a mere 1 percent increase in fuel economy since 1981, a 29 percent increase in 1 to 60 and a 93 percent increase in horsepower.

Click here to read Public Citizen's report on the cost of lax fuel economy standards.

Click here to read the EPA's fuel economy trends report.

Other FAQs

I have an auto safety invention.  Whom should I contact?

We are pleased to hear of your work to improve highway and auto safety.  Although we do not actively promote particular products, we are always interested in learning about technologies that improve safety.  Please send informational materials to the below address.

Auto Safety Group
Public Citizen 
1600 20th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20009
autosafety@citizen.org

You may also want to contact Consumer’s Union at www.consumersunion.org.  They test vehicles and products for safety purposes and might be able to assist you.  Another option would be to contact the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety with your idea, as they may be interested, too.  

Shouldn’t whether or not to wear a safety belt be a personal decision, rather than required by law?

Safety belt use is not a personal decision.  The decision not to wear a safety belt has potential negative consequences for society as a whole and can end up costing the general public.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a fact sheet detailing the economic costs resulting from people who don’t wear belts available on the Web at:

http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/airbags/buckleplan/mayplanner2003/factsheet.html

Following are some of the facts on the cost to society of people not wearing seat belts from the NHTSA fact sheet:

The general public pays nearly three-quarters of all crash costs, primarily through insurance premiums, taxes, delays and lost productivity. [NHTSA, Economic Impact of Crashes, 2002]

  • In 2000, the economic cost to society was more than $977,000 for each crash fatality and an average of $1.1 million for each critically injured person. [NHTSA, Economic Impact of Crashes, 2002]
  • Motor vehicle crashes in 2000 cost a total of $230.6 billion, an amount equal to 2.3 percent of the gross domestic product, or $820 for every person living in the United States. [NHTSA, Economic Impact of Crashes, 2002]
  • In 2000, the deaths and serious injuries prevented by safety belts resulted in savings of $50 billion in medical care, lost productivity and other injury-related costs. [NHTSA, Economic Impact of Crashes, 2002]
  • In the past 26 years, safety belts prevented 135,000 fatalities and 3.8 million injuries, saving $585 billion in medical and other costs. If all vehicle occupants had used safety belts during that period, nearly 315,000 deaths and 5.2 million injuries could have been prevented — and $913 billion in costs saved. [NHTSA, Economic Impact of Crashes, 2002]

Additionally, unbelted occupants pose a danger to other vehicle occupants they are riding with, as their bodies can be thrown into the other occupants in a crash. 

 

 


1 Bradsher, Keith, High and Mighty: SUVs- The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, 2002, at 112.

2 AdvertisingAge’s Revenue Per Advertising Dollar Expenditure at http://www.adage.com/page.cms?pageId=915, visited February 19, 2003.

3 Bradsher, Keith, High and Mighty: SUVs- The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, 2002, at 112.

4 Levin, Myron, "GM Paid $495 Million in Suits," The Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2003 and Myron Levine, "A history of Fiery Deaths on the Road Facing lawsuits," The Los Angeles Times, April 29,2001.

5 For more information see: http://www.citizen.org/autosafety/tread/

6 See National Center Statistics and Analysis, Safety Belt and Helmet Use in 2002 – Overall Results, Sept. 2002, at 8.

7 National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Characteristics of Rollover Crashes, April 2002, at 47 and National Center for Statistics and Analysis Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatality and Injury Estimates for 2002 at 50.

8 National Center for Statistics and Analysis Alcohol Involvement in Fatal Crashes 2001 at 9.

9 National Center for Statistics and Analysis Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatality and Injury Estimates for 2002 at 40.

10 See Bradsher, Keith, High and Mighty: SUVs- The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, 2002, at 112-113, and see Hakim, Danny "Whether a Hummer or a Hybrid, the Big Complaint Is Fuel Use," The New York Times, May 7, 2003.

11 Bradsher, Keith, High and Mighty: SUVs- The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, 2002, at 113.

12  Click here for the article "Attorney General Cautions Automakers on SUV Advertising"

13 National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Characteristics of Rollover Crashes, April 2002, at 13.

14 National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 2002 Early Assessment of Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Fatality and Inury Estimates for 2002, April 2003, at 52.

15 See Bradsher, Keith, High and Mighty: SUVs- The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, 2002, at 193 (referring to Joksch, Hans C., "Vehicle Design versus Aggressivity," (Apr. 2000), DOT HS 809 194, at 40-42).

16 Jeffrey W. Runge, M.D., NHTSA Administrator, "Meeting the Safety Challenge" at the Automotive News World Congress, Dearborn, Michigan, Jan. 14, 2003.

17 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "2002 Annual Assessment," July 2003.

18 National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Characteristics of Rollover Crashes, April 2002, at 14 and 20.

19 Ross, Marc, Wenzel, Tom, "Are SUVs Really Safer than Cars? An analysis of Risk by Vehicle Type and Model," Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Seminar, Washington, DC, July 30, 2002.

20 Hakim, Danny "Whether a Hummer or a Hybrid, the Big Complaint Is Fuel Use," The New York Times, May 7, 2003. Citation attributed to Michael Flynn, director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

21 Hakim, Danny, "Ford Will Phase Out the Taurus and Replace It With 3 Vehicles," The New York Times, April 16, 2003.

22 Welch, David, "The Sun is Setting on ‘Truckish’ Sport-Utes," BusinessWeek, Monday, May 5, 2003.

23 See Hakim, Danny, "Generous Tax Breaks for Some SUV Buyers Upset Environmental Groups," The New York Times, Dec. 20, 2002.

24 Hakim, Danny "Whether a Hummer or a Hybrid, the Big Complaint Is Fuel Use," The New York Times, May 7, 2003.

25 Gallup Poll, Conducted for Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, October 23-November 15, 1990.

26 Poll conducted for CBS and the New York Times, June 2001.

27 Lou Harris, Conducted by Peter Harris Research Group, July 2001.

28 Crudele, John, "High-Tech Engines Outgunning Mideast Politics" The New York Post, Tuesday, February 18, 2003.

29 Natural Resources Defense Council at: http://www.nrdc.org/breakthechain/chained.asp

30 Id.

31 Id.

32  Click here to view the Sierra Club's website for more information. 

33 Id.

34 Ford Motor Company Statement on S. 1903, Hearing on Energy Conservation Working Paper Before the Senate Committee. on Commerce, 93rd Cong. 2nd Session. at 117.

35 S. 1903, testimony of Alan G. Loofbourrow, Vice President Advance Product and Operations Planning, Chrysler Motors Corporation at 141.

36 Address of E.M. Estes, president, General Motors Corporation, to the Detroit Rotary Club, "Congressional Emission Proposals Endangering Promised Auto Mileage Gains, GM’s Estes Warns," The Oil Daily, Oct. 3, 1975 at 6, (discussing a possible mandated fuel economy of 28 mpg).

37 Ann Mesnikoff, Testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, December 6, 2002, Washington, DC.

38 Hakim, Danny "Whether a Hummer or a Hybrid, the Big Complaint Is Fuel Use," The New York Times, May 7, 2003.

39 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "2002 Annual Assessment," July 2003.

40 Bradsher, Keith. High and Mighty: SUVs-The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. New York: PublicAffairs 2002, at 193 (Referring to Hans C. Joksch, "Vehicle Design versus Aggressivity," (April 2000), DOT HS 809 194. p. 40-42).

41 Joksch, Hans C. "Vehicle Design versus Aggressivity," at 41. Further calculations contained in an electronic mail communication between Public Citizen and safety researcher Hans Joksch stated: "In 1996, 890 car occupants died in collisions with SUVs. If the risk in collisions with cars of the same weight had been half as high, as estimated at that time, 445 deaths would not have occurred if SUVs had been replaced by cars of the same weight." Email from Hans Joksch to Laura MacCleery of Public Citizen, on Feb. 24, 2003 (on file with Public Citizen).

42 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "2002 Annual Assessment," July 2003.

 

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