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SUVs a scapegoat for traffic deaths, bad drivers guilty

The statistics at first sound alarming. A new government report shows the number of U.S. traffic deaths rose nearly 1 percent last year, reaching a 13-year high of 43,220. Some headlines attributed the increase in fatalities to the favorite whipping boy of everyone, it seems, but consumers — the SUV.

Last year saw a 10 percent increase in SUV-related fatalities over 2002, according to the new data, about half of them the result of rollovers. From this, of course, the silly will deduce that these vehicles are a menace to society and should be removed from the road. But you know what they say about statistics.

A deeper reading of the story provides context the attention-grabbing headlines leave out. First, for instance, we learn that while overall fatality numbers have in recent years seen a modest increase, they remain much lower today than in the past, when many more Americans were being killed each year on roads far less crowded than today’s. We also learn that, in spite of the slight rise in actual numbers, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled held constant at 1.5 deaths, due, once again, to the fact that many more vehicles than ever before are on the road.

Also less than shocking was the increase in SUV fatalities, since there are more SUVs on the road every year and a certain number of these are bound to end up as statistics. SUV sales also rose 10 percent in 2003. Motorcycle fatalities also were up, and probably for the same reason: More people are riding them than ever before.

Neo-Naderites quickly jumped on the new numbers to bolster their indictment of the SUV and renew calls for government meddling in America’s car-buying choices.

But thankfully, a more reasonable and realistic tone was struck by Jeffrey Runge, who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “This problem will not be solved in Washington, D.C., alone,” Runge said. “We need the cooperation of every American to drive responsibly.”

All motor vehicles are potentially dangerous instruments in the hands of mistake-prone, substance-impaired or sometimes simply unlucky human beings. That won’t change no matter how many safety features are added to cars, regulatory edicts are handed down by government or attempts are made to legislate immortality.

Blaming it on the machines reflects a typically modern tendency to remove personal responsibility from the equation, portraying people as passive victims of circumstance or malfeasance rather than free and active authors of their own fates. That strengthens the hand of those who see the solution to all life’s challenges and misfortunes as more government paternalism.

And should we restrict the right of Americans to own an SUV, or a motorcycle, or to engage in other activities that carry risks, simply because we can’t guarantee that they’ll do so responsibly? Down that road lies a potentially endless variety of tyrannies.