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SUVs Still Not Teen-Safe, Despite Institute Report - Expert
A report recommending that parents consider purchasing an SUV for their teen drivers, based on findings that electronic control systems now minimize rollovers, is incomplete and potentially misleading because it omits life-saving information
By: Public Interest Law Professor John Banzhaf
"Because high-speed crashes are a far more common cause of death and injury than rollovers, especially among teen drivers who often fail to appreciate the risks of high speed driving, it makes little sense to focus on electronic systems to reduce rollovers, and completely ignore another current electronic system which could prevent virtually all high speed accidents," says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, a former engineer and inventor who has taken legal action in this area.
Virtually every car on the road today has, built into its on-board electronic system, a high-speed cutoff circuit which prevents the vehicle from being driven at a speed greater than that programmed into its computer memory. Unfortunately, the top speeds programmed into these systems usually exceed 120 mph, and are based upon the speed at which the tires will begin to disintegrate from centrifugal force.
But the top-speed setting can easily be reset to something far more realistic, almost as simply as computer users change the "defaults" in various fields on their computer programs. So, instead of simply recommending that parents concerned about accidents consider SUVs for teen drivers, the Institute should at least have alerted parents to this additional option which would prevent a far more frequent cause of death and injury from teen drivers than the rare rollover.
"For a young very inexperienced teen driver, especially one who has been admonished to limit his driving to city streets and not to exceed a speed of 55 mph, a parent could request the dealer to reset the top speed to 60 mph - thereby virtually eliminating any possibility that the teen would exceed that limit. For more experienced teen drivers, parents could have the top speed of their child's new SUV or other vehicle reset to 70, 75, or even 80 mph," suggests Banzhaf.
Even an 80 mph speed limit, which is much higher than any teen would realistically need given current speed limits, would prevent the all-too-common accident where a teen - sometimes while racing, sometimes while drunk, and sometimes at the urging of peers - drives at 90 mph or above and puts not only himself and his passengers, but also everyone in other vehicles, at a high risk of a very serious and often fatal accident.
A driver whose speed is no more than 80 mph is obviously far less likely to have an accident than the same driver under the same road conditions going 90, 100, or even 120 mph. The differential between his speed and that of other vehicles on the road, the distance needed to stop the car, etc. are all much less, says Banzhaf.
Moreover, even if an accident does occur, it will almost always be less severe. In general, an accident at 120 mph is about 225% as severe as one occurring at 80 mph, even thought the first vehicle is traveling only 50% faster. This is because the severity of the accident is directly related to the kinetic energy of the vehicle, which in turn is proportional not to the speed but to the square of the speed, explains Banzhaf.
"We must put the risks to a teen driver in perspective, especially when they can easily be controlled by an existing electronic circuit. It would make little sense to devise an automobile circuit which would automatically turn off the radio when a teen is driving if, with equal effort, a circuit could be devised to prevent a teen from texting while driving. Although the former will probably result in a small reduction in teen driving accidents and deaths, the latter would be much more effective because it attacks a much more common cause of such accidents," argues Banzhaf.
Here, where vehicles already have circuits to limit both rollovers and speeding, it likewise makes little sense to concentrate solely on the former, which causes far fewer fatal accidents than the latter, and ignore the major killer.
JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.
Professor of Public Interest Law
George Washington University Law School,
FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,
Fellow, World Technology Network,
Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)
Creator, Banzhaf Index of Voting Power
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