U-Haul says towing's just safer

By Alan C. Miller and Myron Levin
Times Staff Writers

June 25, 2007

U-Haul says it's safer to tow its equipment than to drive a car without a trailer.

The company advanced this contrarian idea as far back as 1970, when it was fighting proposed federal towing-safety rules. Citing its own data and figures collected from states, U-Haul said in a report: "AN AUTOMOBILE WITHOUT A TRAILER IS MORE LIKELY TO HAVE AN ACCIDENT THAN ONE WITH A TRAILER."

Since then, U-Haul has produced data in lawsuits showing that customers driving its trucks and trailers have a much lower accident rate than what the National Safety Council reports for fleet vehicles such as postal trucks, transit buses and police cars.

At The Times' request, U-Haul provided accident statistics for its trucks and trailers for 1982 through 2004. The numbers compare favorably with federal estimates of the accident rate for passenger vehicles.

For recent years, U-Haul reports 3.6 to 4.1 truck accidents per million miles traveled and less than one accident per million miles for trailers and tow dollies.

There were an estimated 3.83 accidents per million miles for all passenger vehicles in 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

U-Haul said the numbers reflect the care people take when moving their families and possessions. They are less apt to speed, drink or drive in bad weather, the company says.

But U-Haul's figures have never been independently verified and are viewed by some experts as suspiciously low.

The claim that motorists are safer with a trailer than without one clashes with expert opinion. Daniel Blower, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, said a tow combination "handles more poorly and is less stable" than a single vehicle.

A much-discussed 1966 study found that cars hauling trailers along Route 66 had accidents at four times the rate of other passenger vehicles. U-Haul attacked the study as deeply flawed.

A 1979 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation also cited a "considerably higher accident rate for vehicles pulling trailers."

Also in dispute is whether the U-Haul numbers can be compared with the National Safety Council fleet data. U-Haul says they can because both deal with "some similar vehicles with heavy use in a variety of environments."

However, Alan Hoskin, the safety council's manager of statistics, said it was questionable to compare U-Haul trucks and trailers with "things like transit buses and school buses and emergency vehicles."

Randy Whitfield, a Maryland-based statistician, quipped that if U-Haul's data are accurate, "Isn't the solution to our highway problem that everybody go out and rent a U-Haul trailer?"