The "Arms Race" on American Roads: The Effect of Heavy Vehicles on Traffic Safety and the Failure of Liability Rules

Michelle J. White

NBER Working Paper No. 9302
Issued in November 2002
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics, Public Economics

Drivers have been running an 'arms race' on American roads by buying increasingly heavy vehicles such as SUVs, vans and light trucks. Families view large vehicles as providing better protection to their own occupants if a crash occurs, but these vehicles pose an increased danger to occupants of smaller vehicles and to pedestrians and bicyclists. This paper measures both the beneficial internal effect and the negative external effect of heavier vehicles. The main result is that when drivers replace cars with light trucks, 3,700 additional crashes per year involving fatalities of smaller vehicle occupants, pedestrians and bicyclists occur, while only 1,400 crashes involving fatalities of light truck occupants are avoided, i.e., the ratio of negative external effects to positive internal effects is 2« to 1. The paper argues that none of the existing traffic laws or institutions forces drivers of heavy vehicles to take account of their negative external effects.

download in pdf format
   (418 K)

email paper

A non-technical summary of this paper is available in the June 2003 NBER digest.  You can sign up to receive the NBER Digest by email.

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w9302

Published: White, Michele J. "The 'Arms Race' On American Roads: The Effects Of Sport Utility Vehicles and Pickup Trucks On Traffic Safety," Journal of Law and Economics, 2004, v47(2,Oct), 333-355.

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Duranton and Turner w15376 The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US cities
Anderson and Auffhammer w17170 Pounds that Kill: The External Costs of Vehicle Weight
Dee and Evans Teens and Traffic Safety
Fullerton and Gan w11174 Cost-Effective Policies to Reduce Vehicle Emissions
Jacobsen w18012 Fuel Economy and Safety: The Influences of Vehicle Class and Driver Behavior
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us