May 2004: High and Mighty

People have many excuses for driving an SUV, none of them valid
May 1, 2004

It’s tempting for me to begin this column by saying that “some of my best friends are SUV owners,” but, since none of them are, I have to settle for a more mundane opening: If anyone reading this piece owns or drives a Sports Utility Vehicle, read no further unless you are open-minded enough to consider the possibility that you would be better off driving a car. (And so would your non-SUV fellow motorists and the environment.)

The benefits to the environment are clear. A typical SUV consumes a lot more energy than a typical car--as much extra in one year as you would waste by leaving the door of your fridge open for 18 years. Most SUV owners can probably afford it, financially, but the additional carbon dioxide they’re spewing into the atmosphere is not affordable, environmentally.

This greenhouse-gas-emission argument, obviously, has not been effective enough to dissuade thousands of people from buying SUVs, or persuade them to switch back to smaller passenger cars. Every time I park my little sedan near a grocery store, it seems that when I come back I’m bracketed by two of these monsters, blocking my vision and forcing me to risk a fender-bender no matter how cautiously I back out.

The flaw in the environment argument, I suppose, is that each SUV owner is able to individualize his or her increase in gas emissions as being relatively insignificant. It’s easy for them to disregard the cumulative polluting effect of all the SUVs now clogging our roads and parking lots.

The alarming fact is that the sales of SUVs continue to soar. A recent article in the Business section of my local paper reported that the SUV is steadily displacing the minivan as the most popular large passenger vehicle. Overall sales of minivans are rapidly declining, with 35,000 fewer of them being sold in Canada last year than in 2002. Not all these previous van owners switched to SUVs, but most of them did.

Why would anyone make this switch? It’s not that the SUV is all that much roomier. The excuse that someone with a large family needs a bigger vehicle is valid, as far as it goes, but the minivan provides all the extra seats that could reasonably be required, and in just as much comfort.

The minivan also provides as much height off the road for drivers who believe that the added elevation improves their vision. (I’m not implying that driving a minivan is any more excusable for a small family than driving an SUV, but for a family of six or more it’s a defensible choice.)

The main reason people are most likely to give for driving an SUV--if you get into an argument with them--is that the SUV is a much safer vehicle than a car and one whose occupants are most likely to survive a crash. Well, guess again. The hard reality is that the big, heavy SUV is less safe to drive and is involved in more fatal accidents than smaller vehicles.

Don’t believe me? American scientists Tom Wenzel and Marc Ross recently studied safety statistics for the whole range of small, mid-size, and large passenger vehicles. They reported their findings in terms of annual traffic fatalities per million cars, including the drivers and passengers in each model as well as those in the cars they hit. They found that the safest vehicles are the compact and mid-size cars such as the Toyota Camry (70 deaths), the Volkswagen Jetta (70), the Nissan Maxima (79), and the Honda Accord (82). In sharp comparison, the SUVs are involved in 100 or more fatalities a year, including the Ford Explorer (148), the Toyota 4Runner (137), the GMC Jimmy (114), the Ford Expedition (112), the Jeep Grand Cherokee (106), and the Chevrolet Suburban (105). These are U.S. statistics, of course, but there’s no reason to think the Canadian figures, on a per-capita basis, are any lower.

These eye-opening statistics were included in an article in the New Yorker earlier this year titled Big and Bad: How the SUV ran over automotive safety. It explained in detail why the SUV is unsafe to drive.

First of all, the chassis of an SUV is simply bolted onto a pickup-truck frame, while a minivan has a more solid unit-body construction. In 35-mile-per-hour crash tests, an SUV driver was found to have a 16% chance of a potentially fatal head injury and a 20% chance of a fatal chest injury, compared to just 2% and 4%, respectively, for a minivan driver.

The SUV, being so heavy, is also far less nimble and harder to stop in an emergency. Smaller vehicles are thus more likely to be able to avoid a collision. Then there’s the overconfidence factor. Many SUV drivers who rely on size, weight, and the SUV’s four-wheel drive for safety are inclined to exceed speed limits in bad weather or on icy roads. The four-wheel drive is no help braking in a skid, and the extra weight becomes more of a liability than an asset.

Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote the New Yorker article, says that the big automakers couldn’t believe how easy it was to get motorists to buy the SUVs. When Ford decided to produce the first SUV, the Expedition, it didn’t expect sales to be huge. How many people, after all, would be willing to pay $36,000 ($12,000 more than the cost of building it) for what was essentially a dressed-up truck? Then the orders started flooding in--so many that Ford decided to build a “luxury” version of the Expedition, the Lincoln Navigator. “They bolted a new grille on the Expedition, changed a few body panels, added some insulation, took a deep breath, and charged $45,000--and soon Navigators were flying out the door as fast as Expeditions.”

The engineers in Detroit who design motor vehicles were even more baffled by the SUV craze. “Engineers like to believe that there is some connection between the success of a vehicle and its technical merits,” Gladwell noted. “But the SUV boom was like Apple’s bringing back the Macintosh, dressing it up in colourful plastic, and suddenly creating a new market. It made no sense to them.”

The SUV craze, then, could only be explained as an expression of self-worth--as an ostentatious display of a person’s ability to purchase the latest expensive status symbol: “Look at me. I drive a bigger and better vehicle than you do--and I can afford it.”

Another author, Keith Bradsher, in his new book High and Mighty

--widely acclaimed as the most important book about Detroit since Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed--describes the bafflement and contempt that auto executives feel toward the customers who buy their SUVs. He quotes Fred J. Schaafsma, a top engineer for General Motors, as saying, “Sport-utility owners tend to be more like ‘I wonder how people view me,’ and are more willing to trade off flexibility or functionality to get that.”

According to Bradsher, “internal industry market research concluded that SUVs tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centred, and lacking confidence in their driving skills.”

Far be it from me to apply any of these unflattering characteristics to the few Monitor readers who may own or drive SUVs. Please note that the descriptions are part of the auto industry’s profiling, not mine. But if anyone reading this essay still thinks there’s a good reason to operate one of these monsters, despite the revelations about their excessive costs and dangers, please pass it along to me.