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U.S. obesity problem impacts automobile safety and fuel economy

Consumer Reports News: August 12, 2010 11:46 AM

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new report on obesity and found that there was a 1.1 percent increase (an additional 2.4 million people) in the self-reported prevalence of obesity between 2007 and 2009, plus the number of states with an obesity rate over 30 percent has tripled to nine states. In 2000, there were no states that had an obesity rate of 30 percent or more. The rise in obesity in the United States has become a huge public health and medical cost concern, but there are other impacts. Obesity has caused more people to buy larger vehicles, which increases gasoline consumption in the U.S. and fuel consumption increases with more weight in cars either from people or cargo.

A detailed study published in 2006 at analyzed the amount of additional fuel consumed due to heavier drivers. One key finding was that almost 1 billion gallons of gasoline per year can be attributed to passenger weight gain in non-commercial vehicles between 1960 and 2002--this translates to .7 percent of the total fuel used by passenger vehicles annually. Researchers also estimated that over 39 million gallons of fuel is used annually for every pound gained in average passenger weight. It is noted that while this is relatively small considering other factors such as more people on the roads, it is still a large amount of fuel that will continue to grow as the obesity rate increases.

A 2009 study by the non-profit company Resources for the Future looked at the link between obesity and vehicle demand and found that from 1999 to 2005, a 10-percent increase in overweight and obese drivers reduced fuel economy of new vehicle demand by 2.5 percent. The study noted that as the overweight and obesity rates increased, so did the percentage of vans, SUVs, and pickup trucks purchased from 16 percent in the early 1970s to recently more than 40 percent. (Of course, other factors helped drive this market change, such as those crude, commercial-type vehicles becoming more refined and better tailored to commuter duties.)

One other result of the obesity problem is the increase risk of crashes as noted in a recent study and that is also due to the fact that obese drivers are less likely to buckle up because seat belts may not fit properly.

With the compounding factors, it is clear that the growing obesity issue is larger than once thought. So, what is the solution?

Of course, the main issue is to address the national obesity rate and reduce that 30 percent figure, but in the meantime, car makers need to look at the design of their belts and seats to better fit larger people. Larger vehicles often provide a better fit for plus-sized drivers, but smaller, more fuel-efficient cars should be made comfortable for all shapes and sizes. In addition, air bag designs aren’t tuned to protect occupants with higher or lower BMI ranges, so that is something manufacturers need to investigate and adjust for. Further, the government should look at their crash test procedures to incorporate various shaped dummies to better represent the full spectrum of American drivers.

Take a look at our list of good cars for plus-sized people.

Liza Barth  

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