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SUVs: High and Mighty?

by Keith Bradsher • Hong Kong

The following was adapted with permission from High and Mighty: SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, published by PublicAffairs™, New York, 2002., www.publicaffairsbooks.com

Sport utility vehicles have taken over America’s roads during the last decade, and are on their way to taking over the world’s roads. The four-wheel-drive vehicle offers a romantic vision of outdoor adventure to desk-bound baby boomers. The larger models provide lots of room for families and their gear, and their size gives them an image of safety. Yet the proliferation of SUVs has created huge problems. Their safe image is an illusion. They roll over too easily, killing and injuring occupants at an alarming rate, and they are dangerous to other road users, inflicting catastrophic damage to cars that they hit and posing a lethal threat to pedestrians. Their "green" image is a mirage, because they contribute far more than cars to smog and global warming. Their gas-guzzling designs increase American dependence on imported oil.

SUVs are no safer than other cars for their own occupants– indeed, they are less safe. The occupant death rate per million SUVs is actually 6% higher than the occupant death rate per million cars. The biggest SUVs, which pose the greatest hazards to other motorists, have an 8% higher death rate for their occupants than minivans and larger midsize cars. How is this possible? SUV occupants simply die differently, being much more likely than car occupants to die in rollovers, as well as being much more likely to send other drivers to the grave.

The height and width of the typical SUV make it hard for car drivers behind it to see the road ahead, increasing the chance that they will be unable to avoid a crash, especially a multi-vehicle pileup. Most of the nation’s guardrails were built for low-riding cars, and may flip an SUV on impact instead of deflecting it safely back into its lane of traffic. And when SUVs hit pedestrians, they strike them high on the body, inflicting worse injuries than cars, which have low bumpers that flip pedestrians onto the relatively soft hood. An SUV will not allow you to swerve around a hazard as handily as a car.

The trucklike brakes and suspensions of SUVs mean that their stopping distances are longer than for a family car, making it less likely that an SUV driver will be able to stop before hitting a car. SUVs typically weigh half a ton more than a car of similar seating, which by itself makes them harder to stop. The weight in an SUV also tends to be higher off the road because of the vehicles’ greater ground clearance for off-road driving. That means the weight of an SUV "leans forward" during sudden braking, so the front brakes have to do most of the work. Brakes lose most of their effectiveness once a tire stops turning and starts simply sliding across the road, so relying mostly on the front brakes means relying on the friction generated by the front tires against the road.

The "macho" tires on many SUVs only make matters worse. Many SUVs are sold with tires that have fairly wide, deep grooves and are promoted as providing good traction during off-road driving. The grooves allow mud and snow to squirt out the back as the tire moves across the mud or snow, allowing the tire to dig in deeper for traction. But the grooves actually hurt traction on a paved road, because they reduce the surface area of rubber in contact with the pavement, tire manufacturers say.

"It has been a compromise– do you want better wet and dry stopping distances, or do you want better off-road traction," said Timothy J. Dougherty, a traction performance engineer at Michelin. It is a safe bet that hardly any SUV buyers, especially those living in urban and suburban areas, know that their vehicles’ stopping distances have been compromised so as to provide off-road traction that virtually no drivers really need.

No problem associated with SUVs is so widely known, and yet so widely misunderstood, as rollovers. Rollovers have been the bane of sport utilities ever since the Jeeps of WWII. But numerous surveys by automakers and federal regulators alike have shown that most people still underestimate the real risks. The consequences of a rollover are extremely serious. Rollovers account for less than 1% of the crashes in the US, but are the cause of a quarter of the traffic deaths– 10,000 deaths a year– more than from side and rear impacts combined. SUVs roll over with a particular frequency: 5 times per 100 crashes, compared to 3.8 times per 100 crashes for pickups, 2 per 100 crashes for minivans, and 1.7 times per 100 crashes for cars, according to federal crash statistics.

Nobody disputes that fuel economy has been declining in the US. But that raises two big questions: Does it matter? And if it does matter, are federally mandated fuel-economy averages the best way to address the problem?

Four arguments are commonly given for why fuel economy matters; conserving resources for future generations, reducing dependence on unstable oil producers in the Middle East, saving money for consumers, and slowing global warming. Conservation, reducing imports and saving money were all arguments used for the original fuel-economy law in 1975. Global warming became an issue tied loosely to cars in the late 1980s, fading after the defeat in 1990 of the Bryan bill, which would have forced automakers to improve average fuel economy by 40 percent over a decade, and then returning as an even bigger issue linked to SUVs in 1997.

Some uncertainties remain about global warming, including its speed and the role of natural factors in its progress. Through much of the 1990s, the auto industry ranked among the most outspoken critics of the theory that humanity has played a significant role in global warming. The auto industry and oil industry have helped to bankroll groups like the Global Climate Coalition, which has fought international limits on emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

The world’s family vehicles, including SUVs, do not cause global warming by themselves, but they are a contributor, accounting for 12% of all manmade emissions of greenhouse gases. The US, with its huge fleet of fairly large vehicles each being driven an average of 12,000 miles a year, is an especially big part of the problem. The US has 5% of the world’s population, but produces nearly a third of all greenhouse gases from automobiles.

To put it another way, automobiles in the US account for 4% of the entire world’s emissions of manmade greenhouse gases. If American automobiles were a separate country, their emissions would exceed those of every country except the US, China, Russia and Japan. Since SUVs are still only a tenth of vehicles in the US, they account for a small share of global, manmade emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, the focus of international efforts to address global warming has been on reversing the slow, steady growth in manmade emissions, and the switch to SUVs is actually pushing emissions up. Cars and light trucks were one of the fastest-growing major category of emissions in the US by the late ‘90s, and gas-guzzling SUVs are likely to double as a share of registered vehicles in the US in the next few years. The Dodge Durango SUVs that Chrysler executives and Delaware politicians were celebrating in 1997 burned 57% more gas per mile, and therefore emitted 57% more carbon dioxide than the Dodge Intrepid full-sized sedan that the factory used to build.

Soon after the antipollution legislation in 1990 was approved by Congress, a dozen states from Virginia to Maine had begun protesting that it was not strict enough. The 1990 legislation did not allow the EPA to impose tighter federal standards until the 2004 model year, except if the industry voluntarily agreed to a tightening. On December 17, 1997, the EPA and auto-industry officials triumphantly announced a deal, which would be phased in during the 1999, 2000 and 2001 model years. They all congratulated each other on having done something about air pollution, and the auto industry issued a blizzard of press releases touting the deal.

Not until the following day did it start to emerge that in putting together the plan, the auto industry had snuck in another loophole. The deal covered all cars, but it only covered light trucks with a gross vehicle weight of up to 6,000 pounds, which were required to reduce pollution to 0.4 grams of nitrogen oxides per mile, from the previous federal standards of 0.7 grams. The agreement froze regulations for full-sized SUVs and pickups at levels already prevailing. This meant that the big vehicles, the fastest-growing segment of the American market, could continue emitting as much as 1.1 grams of smog-causing nitrogen oxides per mile– five and a half times as much as the cars would be allowed.

So why are people buying SUVs at such a rate? The picture that automakers have formed of why people buy SUVs has been pretty consistent. SUVs have taken over Hollywood and are especially popular with people who care about appearances, the research shows. SUV drivers are frequently married with children, but are uncomfortable with both. "We have a basic resistance in our society to admitting that we are parents, and no longer able to go out and find another mate," said David Bostwick, the market research director at Chrysler. "If you have a sport utility vehicle, you can have the smoked windows, put the children in the back, and pretend that you’re still single."

During interviews with consumers, GM officials have noticed that SUV and minivan drivers differ markedly in how they express their desire for control while driving. "Minivan people want to be in control in terms of safety, being able to park and maneuver in traffic, being able to get elderly people in and out– SUV owners want to be more like, ‘I’m in control of the people around me,’" said Fred J. Schaafsma, GM’s top engineer for the initial planning stages of new vehicles. "The words are identical, but the meanings are completely different, and that has implications for how you design a vehicle."

The glitter of Hollywood stars and the power of celebrity politicians have rubbed off on SUVs, originally designed for outdoor sportsmen. Yet something must be done. For most families, SUVs are terrible substitutes for cars. But badly designed government regulations– often shaped by industry lobbyists– have created huge incentives for automakers to build ever-growing numbers of SUVs anyway. The manufacturers have beguiled Americans into buying SUVs with lavish and sometimes misleading advertising campaigns, and by coming up with vehicle designs that appeal to the darkest shadows of human nature. As SUVs have multiplied in the US and beyond, they have fed a highway arms race that has made the world’s roads less and less hospitable for car drivers, worsening a trend that hurts safety and the environment alike.

Keith Bradsher was the Detroit bureau chief of The New York Times from 1996 to 2001, during which time he won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. He is currently the paper’s Hong Kong bureau chief. You can contact him through PublicAffairs™ at www.publicaffairsbooks.com