High and Mighty: SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way
Axle of Evil
A review by Gregg Easterbrook
Last fall's sniper attacks in Montgomery County, Maryland, created gridlock outside
public schools, as many parents responded by driving their children each morning.
Sitting in the paralyzed traffic around my children's middle school during that
period, intersections in three directions blocked by queues of metal, I beheld
what modern transportation trends have wrought. At least half the machines jockeying
for position at the drop-off point were some form of "sport utility vehicle" (SUV)
— a clear mirror of buying trends, since SUVs and deceptively named "light" pickup
trucks now represent half of new-vehicle sales. Many of the SUVs were huge, twice
the size of regular four-door cars. Drivers of the SUVs were usually the aggressive
ones, trying to barge to the front and cut off the cars of people who were, after
all, the parents of their kids' friends at school.
What I observed, facing the tonnage of automotive sheet metal lined up outside Cabin John Middle School in this suburban haven, represented twenty years of public-policy fiasco. Perverse federal regulations have actually encouraged auto companies to make SUVs big and wasteful, creating the very emblem of contemporary selfishness. Special congressional exemptions permit the vehicles to emit far more smog-forming pollutants and greenhouse gases than regular cars. Safety loopholes allow SUVs to be more dangerous than regular cars: it is a common fallacy that the occupants inside SUVs are safer than they would be in ordinary cars, and these Godzillas are instruments of death for non-SUV-driving motorists. Advertising has created the illusion that owning an SUV has something to do with being outdoorsy and adventurous, yet hardly any of these vehicles are used off-road, and the kind of four-wheel-drive systems that many sport to maintain the off-road fiction are nearly worthless in normal driving conditions, and even in snow. Still other perverse special favors have allowed SUVs to have blackout windows, mammoth grill guards, dazzling headlights, and other features designed to make the vehicles as aggressive and hostile as possible.
To top off the scandal, the petroleum-waste trends caused by the SUV and its cousin, the light pickup (which is also exempt from most safety and environmental rules for regular cars, though millions of supposedly commercial-purpose pickups are used as cars), keep American society perilously dependent on Persian Gulf oil, diverting $20 billion annually to Saudi Arabia and its anti-American extremists, and $10 billion annually to Saddam Hussein himself. Stuck in the school-bound traffic, I marveled at the absurdity of our national situation. The country was preparing to make war with Saddam partly over his oil, and here was a parade of SUVs brazenly attesting to the rarely discussed fact that American gasoline stations are Saddam's financial benefactor. Every time an SUV or light pickup leaves the showroom in the United States, fanatics smile in the Persian Gulf.
But it was not the public-policy fiasco of the SUV that was on my mind that morning so much as the existential fiasco of the SUV. These vehicles have converted driving from a convenience and sometimes a pleasure into a nerve-wracking Darwinian battle. Justified as a response to road rage, SUVs and light pickups are actually the root cause of it. Can it be a coincidence that road rage started to become a national concern in the mid-1990s, just as these pharaonic contraptions began flooding the roads? Can it be a coincidence that road rage gets worse annually, pretty much in sync with the annual rise in the percentage of vehicles that are SUVs or pickups? These machines are designed to bring out the worst in their owners while simultaneously making them feel that they are invincible. And they simply take up space, shrinking the road and parking acreage and increasing all forms of congestion. Traffic studies show that the typical SUV occupies as much road and parking space as 1.4 regular cars.
Driving in America has long been leaned on as a metaphor for various aspects
of the national psyche. Now, thanks to SUVs and light pickups, driving is a
metaphor for anxiety-inducing unpleasantness, petty aggression against neighbors,
and profanity-shouting and finger-flipping during routine daily events. The
SUV represents a pitiable equation of a listless activity — sitting in a chair
and pressing a pedal — with virility. Why don't the automakers in Detroit realize
that they are cooking their own goose with SUVs? Detroit has spent the years
of SUV mania promoting vehicles that cause roads to become clogged and driving
to become insufferable. Surely this cannot be in the long-term interest of car
Watching my suburban neighbors in the SUV gridlock, I had two other thoughts.
I reminded myself that I know congenial and kind-hearted people who own these
monstrosities. Some bought SUVs because they were tricked into believing that
they are safer than regular cars or provide better traction — or because most
of the media, addicted to car-advertising revenue, discreetly avoid reporting
on how SUVs kill. Other kindly SUV owners simply went along with a fad. Lots
of nice people have fallen for the SUV, one reason that it has become ubiquitous.
I also reflected that of all the causes taken up by well-educated people of
the middle and upper middle classes — the same demographic that gave money
to Al Gore and voted for him decisively in the last presidential election —
the scandal of the SUV is not on the list. SUV buyers are disproportionately
prosperous and well-educated, since most SUVs cost more than regular cars. Well-educated
and prosperous people seem to have no complaints about SUVs because they believe
that the fad benefits them: perhaps because they think that SUVs make them safer,
or perhaps because SUVs satisfy some deep private need. Maybe some of these
fine people privately long to bellow at the world to get out of their way.
Keith Bradsher covers much of this ground in his dazzling book, a history of the SUV and the public-policy disaster that swirls around it. The former Detroit bureau chief of The New York Times, Bradsher writes with knowledge and confidence. His book is a masterpiece of its kind, splendidly combining reporting, analysis, and indignation. It belongs on the same shelf as Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed and Ida Tarbell's The History of Standard Oil, chronicles of the dangerous interaction of corporate perfidy and regulatory breakdown. High and Mighty tells us more than we may care to know about how government malfunctions, and about the more disturbing aspects of the American cult of driving.
Americans have always loved large cars — well, almost always, and this brings
us to the birth of the SUV. Following the oil crunch in 1973, gasoline was much
more expensive in real-dollar terms than it is today, and Congress imposed fuel-economy
standards on passenger vehicles. These factors combined with Detroit's severe
quality-control problems of the 1970s and the advent of high-quality Toyotas,
Hondas, and Datsuns to make smaller cars fashionable during the late 1970s and
early 1980s. Buyers were abandoning land yachts for nimble small or mid-size
vehicles. Detroit needed a new large-vehicle product to help reverse its declining
At about the same time, the old American Motors company was making a push to market its Jeep brand as a vehicle for everyone, not just for backwoodsmen. The company was in financial trouble. Bradsher reports that its lobbyists told officials of Richard Nixon's newly created Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that if the company went under, they would blame the anti-pollution rules of the newly passed Clean Air Act. So the EPA wrote a waiver that essentially exempted Jeeps from anti-smog regulation, on the grounds that they were not cars but "light trucks." That trucks should get a pass on clean-air rules was itself something of an absurdity. Ostensibly the provision was to protect business, but since the deadweight cost of pollution control is the same from the standpoint of the economy regardless of whether the price is imposed on individuals or on businesses, the distinction never made much sense. In any event, Jeeps were issued a free pass.
You can guess what followed. Other manufacturers demanded free passes for
anything even vaguely truckish, including light pickups. Automakers rushed to
create a new class of large vehicles with obscure design elements (such as the
option of ordering a model with panel sides instead of rear side windows) that
allowed manufacturers to claim that they were trucks, even if they were plainly
intended for use as cars. To this day, every SUV and light pickup sold in the
United States is allowed to emit substantially more smog-forming pollutants
than regular cars. Dramatic action against this problem was supposedly taken
during the Clinton administration — but the dramatic action in question was
to extend the free pass to the year 2009, when SUVs finally, at least in theory,
must meet anti-pollution standards.
All the decent people who buy SUVs in the conviction that they are safe or chic should recognize that their vehicles are pollution-spewing hogs. Regular cars, for which antipollution controls are extremely strict, get cleaner every year, so much so that smog should be declining rapidly in most cities. But smog decline has slowed in the last decade, and the reason is the SUV. The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, for example, was expected ten years ago to be off the EPA smog-problem list by now because the trend in pollution from regular cars was sharply down; but so many smog-emitting SUVs have invaded the area, bringing their anti-pollution exemptions with them, that in the last few years the quality of local air has actually declined.
This decline is not because it is impossible to build a clean-running engine that delivers enough power for a large vehicle. The big engines of some modern full-size cars, such as certain Cadillacs, run with hardly any smog emissions. The 240-horsepower V-6 engine of my family's Honda Odyssey minivan, built in Alabama, generates enough power to move an SUV, but it emits barely measurable pollutants, less than 10 percent of the amount allowed by the standard for regular cars, which is already quite strict. SUV and light pickup engines that could meet anti-pollution rules would be wholly practical. It is just that they are not required, so Detroit does not build them; and Congress, which is in Detroit's pocket, keeps putting off the day when the requirement will kick in.
To strengthen its argument that the first SUV versions of Jeeps were really trucks — even though the company was loading them with luxury features for marketing as personal cars — American Motors pointed to the Jeep's truck-like undercarriage and to its purported ability to operate off-road. Eventually a federal bureaucrat decreed that an SUV with air conditioning, leather seats, and other suburban amenities becomes a truck if it is "capable of off-highway operation." The test of this, in turn, became whether the vehicle is tall enough to provide ground clearance. So Detroit made the early SUVs very tall, to be assured of the pollution-control exemption. Height makes SUVs hostile-looking, causes their headlights to dazzle oncoming drivers, makes them block other drivers' view of the road, and renders them more likely to roll over. But it assures the exemption, which was all that mattered.
In the 1970s, as the rules of the Clean Air Act took force, federal mileage standards also went into effect. An asterisk in the rules specified that they did not apply to vehicles in excess of 6,000 pounds gross weight (vehicle weight plus maximum load). This asterisk was intended to keep the miles-per-gallon (MPG) rules for regular cars from affecting real trucks, since at the time there were no ordinary vehicles with a gross weight in excess of 6,000 pounds. But early SUV manufacturers realized that if they beefed up the suspensions of their products to reach the 6,000-pound mark, they could evade mileage restrictions. So Detroit deliberately made SUVs heavier and more wasteful. The rules, you see, had been set up to reward waste.
By the 1990s, a federal "fleet" standard (the average of all new models sold by a manufacturer) of 20.7 miles per gallon would be established for SUVs, versus the federal standard of 27.5 miles per gallon for regular cars. But though cars as a group actually meet the federal mileage requirement, the SUV standard remains shot through with loopholes. Manufacturers get exemptions if they declare SUVs "dual fuel," or capable of running on ethanol. Millions of SUVs and pickups are now "dual fuel" for rule-evasion purposes, though almost none actually run on ethanol. (In most states, gas stations do not even sell ethanol.) Federal MPG ratings are also derived from unrealistic tests in which SUVs are daintily accelerated with air conditioners off and never, ever driven above the speed limit — since speeding, as we know, is illegal.
Officially, the Dodge Durango gets 13 miles per gallon in city driving and
scores just 1 on the 1-to-10 EPA scale of clean-air performance. The Chevy Avalanche
gets 13 miles per gallon in the city and scores 0 on a scale of 10. The Cadillac
Escalade gets 12 miles per gallon and hits 0 on a scale of 10. The Chevy Tahoe
— owned by Leonardo DiCaprio, who demands that everyone else sacrifice to prevent
an artificial greenhouse effect — gets 14 miles per gallon and 0 on a scale
of 10 for environmental responsibility. And in actual use drivers will be lucky
to realize even these pathetically low figures.
Low mileage in SUVs and pickups is not dictated by the laws of nature any more than pollution-spewing is. Automotive engineers, including those in Detroit, have accomplished wonders with MPG improvement. Full-sized cars such as the Ford Crown Victoria and Chevy Impala now do well on an MPG basis. The new Impala records 32 MPG on the highway, a number that Toyota and Datsun buyers would have envied in the 1970s. The large Buick Park Avenue gets 20 miles per gallon in the city and earns a 7 on the environmental scale of 10. Detroit knows perfectly well how to build fuel-efficient, low-polluting large vehicles.
Large cars now do well on fuel efficiency because the MPG rules for regular cars are actually enforced, compelling Detroit to comply. But Congress has repeatedly granted special waivers for SUVs: in 1990, in a showdown during which a Senate filibuster was used to block progress, and again in 2002, when a bill to improve SUV and pickup mileage drew only 38 votes in the Senate. (Even many Democrats voted nay.) Just before Christmas, President George W. Bush announced that SUV and light pickup fuel-efficiency standards would rise about 10 percent, to an official fleet average of 22.2 MPG, by the model year 2007. Ten percent improvement is preferable to inaction, but it is far less than the SUV fuel efficiency gains that the National Research Council recently told the White House would be practical using current technology. Also, the administration's decision leaves the "dual fuel" gimmick in place, meaning that many SUVs and pickups will simply evade the new standard.
Why such resistance to improving fuel efficiency for SUVs? Since
SUVs and light pickups are now Detroit's most profitable products — owing to
their popularity, they command price premiums and sell at considerable mark-ups — an
unholy alliance of conservatives who oppose federal energy-efficiency rules
and Democrats from United Automobile Workers (UAW) states consistently blocks
legislative attempts to do nothing more radical than require SUVs and pickups
to meet the same standards as regular cars. Detroit does need profit; and, as
Bradsher writes, SUV revenues "have contributed to the economic revival of the
upper Midwest." But SUVs would still be profitable if they were fuel-efficient,
clean, and safe: and all three of those qualities are technologically attainable.
The only vehicle type that would be put out of existence by meaningfully higher
mileage standards would be the ultra-offensive Excursion, Tahoe, and Hummer
class of leviathan SUVs, the existence of which represents a classic "public
nuisance" in legal terms anyway.
Freed from meaningful mileage regulation, designers of SUVs and pickups have concentrated all engine-technology advances on power and acceleration. The result is enormous SUVs that go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 8.5 seconds, which is the rate at which sleek sports cars accelerated a generation ago. (Despite cultural nostalgia for the muscle cars of the 1960s, all categories of automobile are now faster than they used to be: average acceleration has increased about 10 percent per decade since 1970, and the added speed is one reason that roads grow ever more hectic.) SUV drivers certainly do not need excessive acceleration, except to act anti-socially. Indeed, excessive acceleration imperils them, because SUVs and pickups are hard to control with the pedal against the floorboard, and when accelerating they are prone to spinning out as a consequence of too much steering input. Porsche is about to begin selling a 450-horsepower SUV that goes from 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds, which is racetrack speed. Between this absurd degree of ultrahostile acceleration and the poor handling and compromised safety inherent to the SUV, Porsche's product is a death sentence for the company's customers. We can soon expect a reduction in the sort of people who buy a Porsche SUV.
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, nascent SUVs won special exemption after
special exemption. Regulators ruled that SUV bumpers did not have to be as effective
as bumpers on regular cars. Impact standards for driver survival and passenger
survival initially were waived, though they have since been enforced. SUVs and
pickups were permitted to have much poorer brakes than cars — meaning longer
stopping distances — and less durable tires. Designers were not required to
lower the height of the headlights on SUVs so that they did not blind oncoming
drivers: automakers complained that lowered headlights prevented these vehicles
from looking menacing, and regulators caved. SUV manufacturers were given permission
to use darkened passenger windows, which are forbidden on regular cars. There
is no logic here that I can detect, other than that darkened passenger windows
look cinematically ominous and SUV merchants want a monopoly on that look. (Darkened
windows do reduce the load on air conditioners, but if that is good, why can't
regular cars have them?) And SUVs were exempted from stability rules that might
have prevented rollovers. Rather than making SUVs stable, manufacturers were
required only to place a sticker on the sun visor warning of the vehicle's instability.
Perhaps most important from the marketing standpoint, during a trade war with Japan in the late 1970s SUVs won a special import tariff of 25 percent against their competition. This occurred back when Japan was cleaning Detroit's clock and the UAW was worried. In 1980, as Ted Kennedy campaigned to take the Democratic presidential nomination away from Jimmy Carter, Douglas Fraser, the head of the UAW, played the two off each other to win a 25 percent tariff on imported SUVs and most imported pickups. The tariff on pickups exists to this day, grandfathered into World Trade Organization agreements, while the SUV tariff lasted until two years ago, when it was removed after Detroit achieved market dominance in this category.
The many exemptions, coupled with import protection, made SUVs and light pickups categories that Detroit became extremely eager to promote. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the one period when small cars were most popular with buyers, manufacturers offered SUVs as a way to stand out in the crowd. The Chevrolet Blazer hit the market in 1982, followed by the Ford Bronco in 1983. Shortly afterward the OPEC price-maintenance system collapsed and the cost of gasoline declined. Older people started buying SUVs because they found that the vehicle's height made it easier to get in and out. People who wanted to be different or obstreperous or macho behind the wheel flocked to SUVs. People who once bought station wagons switched to SUVs as manufacturers phased out the wagon, which had no import protection, in favor of the "sport-ute."
Here and there SUVs actually were used by outdoorsy types seeking adventure. But, as Bradsher reports, the leading customers for SUVs—to the surprise of auto marketers—were affluent suburbanites who had no intention of driving anywhere other than freeways and mall parking lots. SUVs sold better in cities than in the countryside. They sold well in New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles. "By the end of the 1990s," Bradsher writes, "SUVs accounted for a quarter of all new vehicle registrations in Manhattan, compared with a little under 17 percent nationwide." Clearly not envisioning weekends of backcountry camping, buyers began loading up SUVs with every possible creature comfort, so much so that factories essentially stopped producing the basic versions you would expect to encounter on rugged trails. And so Americans fell in love with SUVs, pretending that the only reason for this infatuation was their erroneous belief that riding in an SUV keeps you safe.
For the purposes of securing regulatory advantage, the manufacturers of SUVs
falsely claim that their products are trucks, but there is one sense in which
they really are trucks: most SUVs have been built on truck underbodies. Early
models such as the Bronco and the Blazer had tall passenger compartments bolted
to pickup truck frames. Bolting SUV bodies onto truck frames saved Detroit research
and development money, and stiff, heavy truck frames are indeed what you would
want if you were actually taking your SUV off-road. But since almost all buyers
use SUVs the way they would use a car — only 1 percent of SUVs are ever driven
offroad, Bradsher notes — the truck undercarriage was the beginning of a safety
Vehicles on truck frames do not handle well, owing to details of suspension and frame properties. Experienced truck drivers know this, and generally they drive their trucks conservatively. But SUVs and light pickups are marketed to suburbanites who drive them like cars, careening around corners. When driven in this manner, truck-based SUVs and pickups are prone to flip over. Moreover, truck-frame construction deprives a vehicle's occupants of protection. Almost all regular cars now have a "unibody" design, in which the driver and the passengers sit protected by a single-unit metal enclosure that bends but does not break, except in the worst crashes. The body-on-frame construction used in SUVs, by contrast, bends poorly; when something slams into an SUV, the body and the frame may separate, exposing the vehicle's occupants. This is the primary reason that SUVs and pickups can be enormous and surround you with hard, heavy alloy, yet are not necessarily any safer. In federal crashworthiness tests, SUVs and pickups have consistently done worse than regular cars. The 1997 Chevy Blazer, General Motors Jimmy, and Oldsmobile Bravada all earned one star in such tests, which means that they are death traps; regular cars rarely get less than three stars. (Air bags have since improved most SUVs' crash ratings; and the first SUV with a car-like undercarriage, the new version of the Ford Explorer, recently did well in crash testing.)
Insurance-company data, Bradsher writes, show that SUVs and light pickups
have much higher loss rates than regular cars. That SUV owners generally do
not pay higher insurance premiums is a perverse consequence of 1970s-era laws
that discouraged insurers from linking auto premiums to vehicle weights. Those
laws were enacted when the well-off had glistening new small cars and the poor
had old land yachts; in the era of the SUV, they represent a subsidy from the
poor to the well-off. Buyers of luxury SUVs may also get tax breaks denied to
buyers of regular cars. As the Detroit News recently reported, the Internal
Revenue Service has been allowing affluent business owners who buy SUVs and
classify them as business "trucks" — even if they are actually burlwood-trimmed
Cadillacs for personal use — to knock as much as $25,000 off their taxes through
a special depreciation. The special tax break only applies if the SUV weighs
more than 6,000 pounds, which represents still another reward for waste.
The most recent comprehensive study of SUV performance and safety,
published last July by the National Research Council (NRC), an affiliate of
the National Academy of Sciences, found that occupant deaths were slightly higher
in SUVs as a class than in cars as a class. That's right: in an accident, you
and your family are more likely to die if you are riding in an SUV rather than
in a car. During last year's Senate debate on blocking SUV mileage standards,
Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland — a state with SUV component plants —
declared that "women love their SUVs...because of their safety." This is political
feminism degraded into a sales pitch for bad cars. There is no gainsaying that
women, and others, feel secure in SUVs, but the important fact is that this
feeling of security is an illusion.
The NRC study found that large cars such as the Buick Riviera and mid-size models such as the Toyota Camry are notably safer for the people inside them than are SUVs. The study also found that the most dangerous vehicles for their occupants are compact and sub-compact cars ("econo-boxes" such as the Dodge Neon and other small vehicles) and, at the other end of the scale, pickups. In this sense, the study confirmed the popular belief that econo-boxes are death traps. And so they are: do not buy them and do not let your children ride in them. The study also confirmed the popular belief that large cars are safer than compacts. But safety design, not tonnage, is the significant factor. SUVs weigh far more than full-size and mid-size cars, but the latter are safer for occupants because they are designed in accordance with the strictest safety standards, while SUVs and pickups are not. Minivans are large, but do well on safety ratings: their buyers tend to be safety-conscious because the vehicles are intended to haul children, and so automakers, even in Detroit, have applied to minivans the safety-design emphasis missing from SUVs and pickups.
The NRC's findings have been relentlessly misrepresented by Detroit's lobbyists and by the White House, which seeks to justify inaction on SUV fuel waste at the same time that it may ask American soldiers to die in Iraq in part for the politics of oil. Lobbyists and administration officials have repeatedly stated that the NRC study concluded that if the MPG rules for SUVs were made stricter, 2,000 people would die from weight reduction in future SUV designs. Yet the NRC asserted no inescapable relationship between weight and occupant safety. (Pickup trucks, among the heaviest of vehicles, are also among the most dangerous to drive or to ride in.) What the NRC study really says is that imposition of the original federal fuel-economy rules caused 2,000 avoidable deaths between 1976 and 1993 because the rules led to people buying econo-boxes; and the early econo-boxes had almost no safety engineering. Today advanced safety design allows hefty cars such as the Impala to get excellent mileage per gallon, meaning MPG rules no longer force buyers into econo-boxes, which I would be happy to see taken off the market on safety grounds.
The NRC report is poorly written, and its density seems intended to defy clear understanding. Yet the 2,000-deaths figure applies to the past, not to the future, and its constant misuse by lobbyists and White House officials falls somewhere between misunderstanding and propaganda. What did the NRC actually conclude about the safety implications of future mileage improvements? That mileage increases "could produce additional road casualties," but only under federal rules "as currently structured" (and every specialist advocates better rules), while there would likely be no additional casualties if stricter standards were "specifically targeted at the largest, heaviest" SUVs and pickups, which is exactly what reformers propose.
While SUVs and pickups do not keep their occupants any safer, they cause significant and avoidable peril to others on the road. No regulations govern the effect that vehicles have when they hit other vehicles; the rules apply only to people on the inside. In accidents, SUVs and pickups are Charon on wheels. Their weight imparts more energy to the crash. A frame that breaks free of an SUV during an accident becomes an iron guillotine aimed at the other car's passenger compartment. In a front-to-front crash, the high noses of SUVs and pickups tend to ride up over the sloping engine compartments of regular cars, resulting in the SUV sitting atop the car and crushing its occupants. (Some new SUVs incorporate a bar designed to reduce the odds of riding up and crushing. High and Mighty doesn't mention this, but Detroit engineers call it the Bradsher Bar, owing to Bradsher's relentless New York Times reporting on this particular risk.)
Bradsher's terrific book provides incredible and ominous detail on the risks that SUVs and pickups pose to other drivers, and the extent to which automakers knew the dangers and covered them up. He cites "the best estimates of federal regulators" that the height, the weight, and the design of SUVs and pickups is causing an avoidable 2,000 deaths per year (yes, another 2,000 estimate) in cars struck by the Godzilla machines. Highway deaths declined through the 1980s and early 1990s, even as more people drove greater distances; the decline flattened out in the late 1990s, though advanced safety features such as anti-lock brakes, "crumple zones," and air bags were becoming common, while programs to encourage shoulder-harness use and to discourage drunk driving were notably successful nationwide. Why did the reduction in auto deaths stop while new safety devices came into use and drunk driving declined? The "kill rate" caused by the presence of ever more SUVs on the road was swamping all safety gains. Bradsher cites an engineering study: "When a car strikes another car in the side, the driver of the struck car is 6.6 times as likely to die as the driver of the striking car. But when an SUV hits a car in the side, the death ratio rises to 30 to 1." Bradsher adds that the "kill rate" for pickups is worst of all, "because pickups are more likely to be driven by reckless young men, and because the bulk of pickups on the road are full-sized models while the bulk of SUVs on the road are still midsized."
A cynic would say that SUV drivers do not care if they kill others in crashes,
so long as they survive themselves; and surely some SUV buyers believe that
they are making themselves safer and do not give a hoot if someone else suffers.
This viewpoint is very prevalent. Bradsher cites an SUV marketing specialist
explaining that part of the sell line is, "If there is a crash, I want the other
guy to die." During last winter's Senate decision not to impose any new mileage
standards on SUVs, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, whose state is home to an SUV
assembly plant, declared that "government should not interfere with the people's
right" to choose SUVs and enormous pickups. But since when is there a "right"
to imperil others? This is not like a First Amendment situation regarding what
you read or think or how you worship, or like a Fourth Amendment situation regarding
what you do within the walls of your home. Driving an SUV or a light pickup
is a public act that creates avoidable public risk. Suppose I invented a device
— say, a security system with an automated arrow launcher — that would make
homes slightly safer, with the regrettable side effect that it would occasionally
malfunction and kill a passerby. Would Senator Bond say that his next-door neighbors
had a "right" to install my invention and point it in his direction? The Founding
Fathers would shiver to hear politicians assert a right to cause harm or to
act irresponsibly in the public sphere.
Since SUVs actually imperil their own passengers, cynical buyers who believe that they are adding to their own safety by subtracting from the safety of others are not getting their money's worth. Indeed, considering that most SUVs are expensive, buyers rarely get their money's worth at all. Buyers surely assume, for example, that if SUVs have leather seats and eleven-speaker Bose audio systems, then they must also have good brakes. Actually most SUVs have inferior brake systems with longer stopping distances than regular cars, while many lack "independent suspension," a standard car feature that improves handling. You have read that SUVs are cash cows for automakers, bringing in much higher profits than most regularcar products. Why are SUVs so profitable? Because they sell at premium prices while being in many respects shoddy merchandise.
A false sense of safety once came to buyers of Ford Explorers with Firestone tires. The notoriously lethal crashes of these vehicles, which led to the biggest recall in auto history and to huge monetary losses for Ford and BridgestoneFirestone, were ultimately traced to defects in the tires, as Explorers with Goodyear tires experienced no unusual problems. (No unusual problems in this sense means that Explorers with Goodyear tires were extra-dangerous in the standard way: "SUV occupants have long had nearly double the death rate of car occupants in tire-related crashes," Bradsher writes.) And drivers contributed to the problem. Many Explorer-Firestone crashes occurred when drivers were speeding (often driving far above the speed limit) and had overloaded vehicles.
Bradsher's book amply documents what you might expect: the dogged attempts by Ford and Firestone to deny the threat. High and Mighty offers a funny-if-it-weren't-sad account of how tire-loading contributed to the Explorer-Firestone problem. One of the many practical jokes about SUVs is that as big and imposing as they appear, they cannot carry much more than regular cars. The maximum safe load for the pre-2002 Explorer was 1,300 pounds, the same limit as for the mid-size Ford Taurus. (It is astonishing how engineers have managed to throw metal at the SUV and yet have come up with vehicles offering few advantages in usable size. The insides of many SUVs are actually cramped! Try to wedge yourself into the backseat of the cost-no-object four-door Range Rover SUV and you will long for a regular car.) In this golden age of American obesity, four passengers alone can come perilously close to the 1,300-pound maximum safe load. Add lots of stuff and your SUV is over its rated weight, which adds to the risk of tire failure and loss of control.
Most drivers do not even know that there is a safe-load limit that they are
not supposed to exceed. To prevent buyers from realizing how readily the Explorer
could be packed over its safe weight, Bradsher writes, Ford did not list the
safe load anywhere on the vehicle or even in the owner's manual. Instead the
maximum gross weight — vehicle and load combined — was stamped inside the
doorjamb. This number is completely useless unless you know what the SUV itself
weighs. Preposterously, owner's manuals instructed buyers that they were to
find some way to weigh the vehicle, then subtract that number from the gross
weight to determine safe load. Bradsher spent a day in an Explorer driving around
trying to find a truck scale that would weigh his ride; he is surely the only
person ever to have done this. The extent to which Ford tried to camouflage
this basic safety number was stunning. In the aftermath of the Firestone tire
debacle, the company now prominently labels SUVs for safe load, but it remains
true that most SUV buyers have no idea that safe-load limits even exist.
The notion that four-wheel-drive systems make SUVs safer than regular
cars is yet another fallacy. Front-wheel-drive systems are clearly superior
to rear-wheel drive for traction, because front-wheel drive places the drive
wheels under the vehicle's primary weight, the engine, which is good for stickiness.
All that four-wheel drive does is to add rear-wheel power to a front-wheel-drive
setup — but it is the rear wheels that are likely to spin in the first place.
In off-road use, four-wheel drive is important because there may be times when
only one side of the vehicle touches the surface, or when one side is on a hard
surface while the other is on a soft surface. In highway driving conditions,
four-wheel drive offers no advantages over front-wheel drive. (And in all conditions,
four-wheel drive does not increase braking power; all vehicles already have
brakes on all four wheels.) Indeed, a front-wheel-drive car with "traction control,"
which regulates wheel spinout, is likely to hold the road in bad weather better
than a four-wheel-drive SUV.
So what does four-wheel drive add to SUVs? In regular use, nothing but weight, cost, and lowered fuel economy. It also creates an artificial sense of protection that may cause SUV owners to drive like maniacs and find out the hard way about four-wheel drive. Last winter my wife and I had to drive across the Cumberland Pass, near the Maryland-West Virginia border, in a snowstorm. The transit was hard and required close attention, but the car, a front-wheel-drive Honda Accord built in Ohio, never skidded. We passed perhaps two dozen vehicles spun out on the shoulders along the expanse of the pass, owners standing nearby swearing and gesturing as they shouted into cell phones. Every one of the spun-out vehicles was an SUV.
Which brings us to the rollover. The primary reason SUVs are more dangerous to ride in than cars is that they are far more likely to tumble in this way. "Roughly 1,000 Americans died needlessly in rollovers in 2000 because they were in SUVs instead of cars," Bradsher writes, summing up a large body of research. Needless SUV-rollover deaths are likely to increase, owing to the growing use of SUVs. Buyers who choose enormous SUVs because the metal makes them feel safe are surely thinking that most car crashes are head-to-head collisions, in which metal does favor those in SUVs. Such buyers probably dismiss the chance of a rollover as an extreme rarity. Yet fully one-third of highway deaths occur in rollovers. If this were more widely known, surely people would not be lining up to purchase vehicles that are likely to roll over.
SUVs roll over because their center of gravity is much higher than that of regular cars; and because their tires are often overloaded; and because truck-like steering properties make them harder to control than cars for average drivers who lack truck licenses; and because every time a passenger climbs into an SUV, his or her own body weight, sitting tall off the road, raises the center of gravity that much higher. Since the weight of passengers and luggage raises the SUV's center of gravity, a vehicle that is packed with people is more likely to roll over than a vehicle containing only a driver, making everything still worse. There is even an awful SUV-guardrail interaction. Most guardrails have a standard height that stops cars well but just happens to be perfect for making runaway SUVs flip over and crush their occupants. Half of SUV buyers are now women, and they tell focus groups that they are attracted to the feeling of sitting high off the road. No one informs them that sitting high off the road makes them more likely to die.
Bradsher's book presents a depressing chronicle of how automakers strove to suppress information about SUV rollover deaths and how eagerly Congress cooperated in the hush-up. Since the dawn of the SUV, members of Congress, prominently including John Dingell of Michigan, have pressed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) not to test SUVs for rollover likelihood. Another prominent water-carrier for the SUV is Representative Martin Frost of Texas, Nancy Pelosi's recent rival for the position of House minority leader; Frost once favored higher mileage standards for SUVs, but instantly became an apologist when General Motors converted a factory in his district to SUV production. Only after the Explorer-Firestone scandal did Congress instruct NHTSA to investigate SUV rollovers. Since the scandal, NHTSA has published a largely meaningless rollover rating calculated solely from a vehicle's wheelbase and height. Beginning this year, NHTSA will perform actual tests to determine which SUVs roll over and which are stable. Members of Congress from SUV-producing states opposed the actual-conditions tests, apparently worried that voters would find out what the real risks are.
High and Mighty makes still another unsettling point about the safety of SUVs. So far SUVs have been only somewhat more dangerous than cars, Bradsher writes, because they are expensive and tend to be purchased by well-off people between 30 and 50 years old, a cohort with a below-average incident of causing crashes. Soon, as the first generation of monster SUVs gets traded in, these behemoths will begin entering the used-car market, where they will be purchased by immigrants, the lower middle class, and the poor, who generally speed, run lights, drive drunk, and crash more often than the prosperous classes. It is sad but true that the less well-off, and especially immigrants, drive more recklessly than the well-off; and the fines, the points, the raised insurance rates, the revoked licenses, and the greater incidence of crashes are all reasons that they tend to stay less well-off. At any rate, this segment of the population is about to be armed with three-ton SUVs and enormous pickups.
Used SUVs will also end up in the hands of teenage males, who possess the very worst driving records, regardless of social status. The "responsible middle-aged people" who bought the first wave of SUVs, Bradsher notes, mainly had families and did most of their driving in daylight, when crashes happen less. But the teenagers, the immigrants, the rowdy young guys, and the others who are about to inherit the first wave of SUVs drive at night, when accident rates spike. Today "more than half of the nation's SUVs are less than five years old," meaning that they are in the hands of their original owners. Within a few years, the majority of SUVs will be in the hands of their second or third owners—who, statistics predict, will be more prone to driving these monsters carelessly.
"They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors." This is Bradsher's summary of the auto industry's own marketing research about SUV buyers, and he adduces numerous on-the-record comments from auto-marketing gurus to back this up. One such wise man, named Clotaire Rapaille, tells the Big Three that people buy SUVs "because they want to look as menacing as possible." It is perhaps not startling that rather than trying to alter these buyer proclivities, the manufacturers of SUVs have tried to encourage them. There are lots of self-centered and self-absorbed people with little interest in their neighbors. Somebody finally made a class of vehicles designed to bring out the worst in them.
Many SUVs, such as the Durango, have been consciously engineered to look as threatening as possible, with auto companies using focus groups and other techniques documented in High and Mighty to determine which features and styling cues suggest an anti-social message and then zeroing in on them. The styling goal for the oversized Dodge Ram mega-pickup was "a vehicle that would make other motorists want to get out of your way." Cadillac markets the Escalade with photography staged to make it appear to be an armored combat vehicle, over the huge-type sell line Yield.
Bradsher asserts that Rapaille, who will not drive an SUV himself owing to the danger of rollover, has been an influential force in encouraging Detroit to make SUVs and light pickups heavier and nastier-looking, arguing that selfish modern buyers think they can cut off other drivers more easily in wheels that seem threatening. Certainly not all large cars are marketed with a hostile message. Minivans, which though also large are far safer, more fuel efficient, and lower-polluting than SUVs and pickups, are marketed with an emphasis on positive values: caring for children, arriving safely, offering rides to the softball game. SUVs and pickups are sold by appealing to belligerence, and what you promote is often what you get.
One hostility-intensification feature is the "grill guard" that SUV manufacturers
promote. Grill guards, useful mainly for pushing oryx out of the road in Namibia,
have no application under normal driving conditions. But they make SUVs look
angrier, especially when viewed through a rearview mirror. (The grotesque new
General Motors Hummer H2 offers a cage of steel in front of the grill for an
additional $525.) Grill guards also increase the chance that an SUV will kill
someone in an accident. As with so many other aspects of the SUV, the addition
of the grill guards is unregulated — though standard cars, for which there
are strict bumper rules, are not supposed to have metal grill guards.
In addition to marketing hostility, SUV manufacturers assiduously promote the fiction that the true purpose of the SUV is a romantic off-road adventure to the far reaches of nowhere. Just as sports-car manufacturers show their products boldly barreling around the corners of country roads with no other cars anywhere in sight, SUV ads feature these vehicles climbing pristine hillsides, perching atop natural wonders, fording rough and beautiful streams, or racing through magnificent canyons. There is never anybody or anything in the scene except the sovereign SUV, which seems to have all of creation to itself. Often the advertisements are computer-generated productions in which an SUV is digitally spliced into a natural scene because the vehicle is not in fact capable of getting to these farthest reaches of sublimity.
All automakers are guilty of advancing the fiction that SUVs are intended for offroad adventures, but nothing surpasses in romantic deception Ford's "No Boundaries" campaign for the company's Explorer, Expedition, and Excursion SUVs, in which it is suggested that these vehicles are used primarily to support kayaking, Himalayan ascents, and Peruvian anthropology. The earth-crushing Excursion weighs four tons, versus one and a half tons for the typical car. Ford's website gives the length and height of the Excursion down to tenths of an inch, but says nothing about its weight.
The marketing of SUVs as if they had something to do with the outdoors plainly appeals to aging boomers who fancy themselves adventurous and free-spirited while living tame suburban lives. If the overwhelming majority of traveling boomers never stray far from their hotels, millions still wish to maintain the illusion that they might. Bradsher reports that one of DaimlerChrysler's chief SUV designers convinced the company that what counted was not how SUVs were actually used but "the fantasy of what [the buyer] might want to do during a vacation, and the ability to show friends and other motorists that they really were the bold people they liked to see themselves as." That SUVs are becoming popular with young buyers suggests that the daydream has multi-generational appeal.
The outdoor-adventure illusion of SUVs makes these vehicles worse in a nefarious way that relates to their treatment in the media. High and Mighty includes an intriguing discussion on the role of the press in auto sales. For consumer items such as soft drinks, studies show that buyers make choices based 90 percent on advertising and promotion ("paid media," in corporate terms) and just 10 percent on what newspapers and magazines say ("free media"). When it comes to cars, by contrast, people tend to read up: studies show that only 20 percent of the buyer's decision is based on promotion, with the rest coming from what buyers read and hear from the "free media." It is reassuring to learn that the power of the press still exists somewhere; but when it comes to SUVs, this power is consistently misused.
The automotive writers in newspapers and the many "buff books" — Car &
Driver, Road & Track, and the rest — tend to review SUVs by focusing on
their offroad prowess. Auto writers drive these machines up hills, across boulders,
and through deserts, and then analyze the fine points of four-wheel-drive performance.
(Bradsher describes a hilarious SUV-introduction junket in which writers were
given a succession of washed and polished new Fords to drive like lunatics through
a wilderness area, while they were followed everywhere by chefs, wine stewards,
and a huge trailer that contained marble bathrooms for the Ford executives.)
This form of rating is wildly irrelevant to the actual uses of these vehicles.
But in order to be assured of good off-road ratings, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler,
and Ford beef up the suspensions, the frame rails, and the horsepower of their
SUV models, rendering them more wasteful and more dangerous in the conditions
under which they are actually used.
Auto writers and buff books rarely discuss SUV safety or gas mileage, not wanting to upset advertising buyers or alter their own obsequious, handout-based relationship with Detroit. The Washington Post recently offered an instance beyond parody. Its auto writer, Warren Brown, penned a love poem to the new General Motors Hummer H2, the most offensive SUV yet devised. Skipping the fact that the Hummer is a leather-lined luxury toy (heated seats, nine Bose speakers) being marketed to affluent suburbanites, Brown deliriously proclaimed that the Hummer is what Jesus would drive. Its size and its profligacy are justified, Brown said, because "if you are a missionary like some of my friends," you could use a Hummer "to bring loads of food and medical supplies" to the poor. But verily I tell you that no car on the road will allow its driver to pass through the eye of a needle less easily than a Hummer.
The SUV's combination of sociopathy and fantasy has reached its preposterous culmination in this vehicle, which is based on the military Humvee, originally designed to carry infantry and machine guns. The Hummer gets ten miles per gallon, meaning that its annual greenhouse-gas emissions triple those of a car, and it weighs nearly three tons. (Still another loophole: if an SUV grows heavy enough, like the Hummer, the manufacturer does not have to report its fuel mileage to the EPA.) Hummers are even longer and higher than standard large SUVs, but Consumer Guide recently warned of the vehicle's "limited cargo room" and "cramped" seats, evidence of poor design. (The mid-size Nissan Maxima, which weighs less than half as much as a Hummer, has more front legroom.) The Hummer cannot park without straddling spaces. Its owner would be out of his or her mind to take this $52,000 bauble off the interstate, though of course the advertising features the usual postcard scenes of the noble outdoors. (In my favorite, a Hummer is racing across a glacier.) Do I need to tell you that Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded General Motors to offer the civilian Hummer, endorsed it, and purchased the first one? The Hummer screams to the world the words that stand as one of Schwarzenegger's signature achievements as an actor: "Fuck you, asshole!" Maybe this class of vehicles should be called FUVs.
What does it say about the United States that there are now millions of people who want to drive an anti-social automobile? Huge numbers of Americans will pay thousands of dollars extra for vehicles that visually declare, "I have serious psychological problems." (Though maybe we are better off having this declared.) The antagonistic environment of the modern road is linked, of course, to the more general psychological predicament usually called stress. We are all stressed for time or money or achievement or sex, or at least we all view ourselves as being thus stressed; and the road is experienced as both an obstacle to the things that we are in such a hurry to fail to get and an arena for the cathartic release from this strain.
The road also has the advantage of anonymity. Screaming "Fuck you, asshole!"
to a neighbor or a colleague might have costs. Screaming it behind dark glass
in the fast lane, or symbolically as we roar up behind others or cut them off,
is probably not therapeutically useful — my pop-psychology guess is that road
rage makes the rager feel worse. But the ethos of the modern road, especially
the ever greater number of SUVs and pickups that are intended by their designers
to instill hostility, seems to encourage maniacal driving and the pointless
taking of offense at the slightest lack of deference on the part of other drivers.
On America's highways, calm people are scorned as losers.
The nation's self-sabotaging unofficial moratorium on road-building further contributes to this culture of anger. In the last thirty years, vehicle-miles driven on U.S. roads have increased by 143 percent, while road miles have risen by a mere five percent. The number of miles we drive is a link to our greater prosperity: there are now nearly as many cars in the United States as there are licensed drivers, and almost everyone wants to drive alone, which we all find unreasonable on the part of the other guy but divinely convenient for ourselves.
Some of the miles-driven figure is owed to the combination of government policy and union intransigence that ruined the railroads as freight carriers, leading to the truck deregulation that spawned the tens of thousands of "sweatshops of wheels" that now obstruct highways. Next time you are wedged between two tractor-trailers speeding downhill in the rain, bear in mind that most of what they carry used to move on the now-idle rail lines, while highways were kept free for cars and buses. Truck deregulation (slightly) holds down consumer prices by (slightly) cutting costs for retailers, but it chokes traffic and it makes highway travel unpleasant; a sensible union compromise to keep goods, and jobs, along the rails would have made far more sense for society as a whole. And if you don't like the weaving, speeding way that many big rigs are driven today, bear in mind that the Bush administration has proposed that the minimum age for a truck license be lowered to eighteen, in order to create even more downward pressure on drivers' wages.
Rising immigration is another factor in declining road civility. Today the
United States admits more legal immigrants annually than all other nations in
the world combined, and its percentage of foreign-born citizens is the highest
it has been since the 1920s. Mainly this is a social good; but if you have ever
driven in poor nations, you know that American roads are models of civic decorum
compared with much of the rest of the world. In developing nations, traffic
moves willy-nilly, while people ignore lights and veer blithely into congested
roads. Some immigrants bring such habits here, and since state authorities have
in effect decided that a driver's license should go to everyone over sixteen
regardless of skill—licenses are now handed out for barely minimal displays
of competency — an international bad-driver virus is loose on America's roads.
Consider the changing sociology of the flashing of high beams. Traditionally
in the United States, a quick flash of high beams has meant, "You go first."
In much of the world — especially in India and Pakistan, the cradle of a large
fraction of recent immigrants — flashed high beams mean, "I should rather that
I and all my family died a gruesome, meaningless death than yield to you." People
in India and Pakistan flash their high beams as a warning that they are about
to run a light or are coming the wrong way down a one-lane road. Ten years ago
in the Washington area, when you flashed your high beams at someone waiting
to make a left turn, the person would make the turn and give you a grateful
wave. Now when you do this the other driver does not budge, assuming the flash
means that you are accelerating for the purpose of cutting him off.
In some infuriating way, moreover, the SUV and the cellular phone are evil twins. Their proliferation has occurred in tandem, and the conjunction of cell phone use and road rage cannot be overlooked. The man or woman barreling down the road in an SUV while yakking into a cell phone is broadcasting the public-service message "Get out of my way, because I am paying no attention to what I am doing." Safety advances such as air bags and anti-lock brakes have moderately backfired in this regard, as they engender a false sense of security, making the cell phone-SUV crowd think it can barrel distractedly down the road without risk.
The driving metaphor has long been central to American culture. It always entailed a spiritual aspect: the hunger for autonomy, the need for solitude, the urge for power, the problem of never finding what you are looking for. But in the era of the SUV, the driving metaphor has turned simply nasty, a twisting of freedom into aggression and the unfettered satisfaction of a technologically abetted narcissism. This has terrible consequences. There is the waste of petroleum, which causes us to import too much oil from the Persian Gulf and to remain dependent on the despots in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. There are runaway greenhouse gases, which may or may not cause harm but surely cannot be good. There is the transformation of commuting and chore-running into a big nerve-wracking unpleasantness, while spoiling the fun of driving. And there are the needless deaths of our fellow citizens.
That last result of the SUV craze is what should haunt us the most. But where is the general media attention to High and Mighty, which ends with reasonable prescriptions for reform? Only auto writers and the "buff" press are paying heed, and only to attack Bradsher's disclosures for jeopardizing their sweetheart relationship with Detroit. Members of Congress, for their part, have so far responded to this extraordinary book as they have responded to the entire issue: by hiding under their desks.
On New Year's Day, the incoming Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was praised for racing to give emergency aid to victims of a vehicle wreck in Florida. Two children died despite his efforts. What was largely overlooked in the coverage of Frist's heroism was the character of the crash. A tire blew on an SUV and the monstrosity flipped, ending two young lives; tire-caused fatalities are rare among regular cars. Will Frist become an advocate of SUV reform, or will he return to Washington and join his colleagues in the next round of cover-ups and exemptions? Frist has now seen with his own eyes the folly of government's coddling of the SUV: the harm done by leading Americans to believe that these vehicles will protect people. In fact, the doctor-senator has now had their blood on his hands.
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