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Is it wise to purchase an SUV?

By Rachel Alexander
web posted December 10, 2001

The phenomenon of the ever-escalating number of suburban yuppies who insist on purchasing new SUVs, or "suburban assault vehicles," is peculiar. As society receives more and more information revealing that the negatives of owning an SUV outweigh any benefits SUVs might have, it is becoming painfully clear that it is ignorance fueling this massive rush of suburban warriors to the new car dealerships. This ignorance is fueled by the clever advertising tactics of car manufacturers, who pretend in their car commercials that people who buy their SUVs are cool, independent, and all-American.

Yet how cool can you be if the car you drive is really a sham? SUVs have been found in
tests to be less safe in more situations than regular passenger vehicles. They pollute the air and guzzle more gas than regular passenger cars. Most SUVs actually have less room inside for passengers than a comfortably sized passenger car. The dealer mark-ups on SUVs - usually $10,000 to $15,000 - are so high they are not economically a good investment. Yet ask the average SUV driver why they purchased their SUV, and he or she will respond that it is "safer" and "roomier" than a passenger car.

A 2001 Lincoln Navigator where you will never see it....outside of the city
A 2001 Lincoln Navigator where you will never see it....outside of the city

As more and more of the population purchases SUVs, an increasingly hazardous environment is created on the highways, in the parking lots, and parked along the sides of streets, because it is becoming more and more difficult to see around or over SUVs, or fit past them. Hostility against these high and mighty drivers has been building throughout the last decade, culminating in the recent phenomenon of road rage. Unfortunately, there is little outcry generated directly at SUV drivers, other than mumbled gripes, because everyone knows someone who drives an SUV, and doesn't want to risk offending them. Which is absurd, because your SUV friend is already offending you when they drive their SUV.

Many SUV advocates argue that SUVs are an extension of the "safety in a big car" argument that was popular in the 1970's and 1980's, which developed partly in response to environmentalist advocacy of smaller cars. Frequently heard with the big car argument is the mantra that Americans should be allowed to drive whatever type of car they choose without government interfering.

However, both of these arguments are flawed. SUVs are less safe overall than passenger cars, even smaller passenger cars. Studies have shown that overall, in accelerating and handling, SUVs are inferior in comparison to similarly sized and powered cars. In most types of accidents, a vehicle occupant is more likely to be injured in an SUV than in a passenger car. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Studies, in single vehicle crashes, heavy vehicles with stiff frames -which are mostly SUVs - may actually harm the vehicle's occupants more than in a passenger car because there is little give to dissipate the force of running into an immovable object. This is because the best selling SUVs use old "ladder" technology in their frames, which is not designed to absorb collision impacts.

SUVs have a longer braking distance than passenger cars, which is exacerbated in rain and snow. Because of their higher body frame, SUVs are much more likely to tip over than are passenger vehicles, and in 1997, the federal government found this problem so pervasive it required warning signs inside SUVs. As a result, some SUV manufacturers have stated they are going to start designing SUVs with lower minivan frames. Of course, this will take away from the appeal of the tough, "I am higher than you" look of the SUV.

SUV advocates frequently tout the lone statistic that in crashes between SUVs and passenger cars, the passenger cars will generally sustain worse damage. However, this is the ONLY type of vehicular accident where SUVs are less dangerous, and this fact is offset by the fact that SUVs are more likely to get into an accident in the first place. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, while SUVs account for just over one-third of all registered U.S. passenger vehicles, collisions involving SUVs account for over half of all fatalities in light vehicle crashes, and 60 per cent of all fatalities in light vehicles occur when the striking vehicle is an SUV. This makes one
wonder whether many of these accidents could have been avoided had the SUV driver instead been driving a car that had a shorter braking distance, or was easier to handle. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did a study that found that in deaths per million passengers, SUVS had about the same death rates in accidents as small cars, and significantly more fatalities than mid-sized or large cars.

SUV advocates are equally shortsighted when they protest that government should not intrude into consumers' choices of cars. Government already does intrude into this business. The current federal standards for miles per gallon requirements exempt SUVs from the requirements that passenger cars must adhere to, instead classifying SUVs as light trucks, which are subjected to easier emission standards. According to the EPA, SUVs burn 66 per cent more fuel annually than regular passenger cars. SUVs emit approximately 50 per cent more noxious elements into the air than regular passenger cars. The government has no plans to hold SUVs to the stricter emission standards until 2004, and then only certain SUVS. Ford Excursions and some models of Chevrolet Suburbans will not have to comply until 2009. All cars (including SUVs) account for 20 per cent of the CO2 emissions in the U.S., which is a huge amount.

Since government regulation grossly favors the manufacturing of SUVs, so-called "free choice" advocates are in essence defending the government's choices. What is troubling is that the free choice advocates are focusing so hard on the "right to drive an SUV" that they mistake the "right" to drive an SUV with "it's a good idea to drive an SUV." For the average American reading an article about rights and SUVs, it is easy to confuse support of the "right" to drive an SUV, with support for SUVs as a useful vehicle. Consequently, free choice advocates have a duty to fully inform their readers about the down side of SUVs, something they are not doing.

Little attention was paid to the fact that the Firestone Wilderness and other tires being
recalled by Firestone and Ford were "defective" partially because they were designed for off-road use, not for driving the kids to soccer practice at high speeds on southwestern urban highways where continuous exposure to hot pavement would split the treads. Suburban moms in their new Jeep Explorers were not using the vehicles as intended. Although there were recognizable problems with Firestone's design of the tires, as well as Ford's sacrifice of safety in order to try and use a smaller tire on its Explorer to decrease the chance of rollovers, that was not the whole picture. Instead of criticizing people for choosing to drive vehicles that clearly were not meant to be driven solely on the hot pavement of southern urban living, outcry was directed solely at Ford and Firestone. Instead of encouraging people not to drive SUVs, the media and the watchdog groups encouraged SUV manufacturers to make even more "safer urban" SUVs.

What has caused these irresponsible fawning assessments of SUVs is the inconsiderate and greedy attitudes of more and more people. In Arizona, there is a serious problem with smog, known as the "brown cloud" locally because of its frequent visibility. Yet the cool thing in Scottsdale, Arizona's rich adjacent city to Phoenix, is to be seen driving a brand-new SUV around town. When Arizona's legislature passed an overly generous alternative fuels credit and rebate package last year to encourage people to use alternative fuel in their vehicles, hundreds of yuppies raced to the dealers to take advantage of the program. Even when the media reported that the legislation should never have gone through, because buyers would be able to exploit the program and force taxpayers to pay for a large portion or even all of their vehicle's cost, people still went ahead and took advantage of the taxpayers.

Even when it became apparent that there were no safeguards to guarantee that buyers would actually use the alternative fuel, hundreds of people lined up to force the taxpayers to pay for their Cadillac Esplanades, their Ford Expeditions, and other large SUVs with token 3 gallon propane tanks next to their 30-gallon regular gas tanks. Instead of costing taxpayers the estimated $3 million the program envisioned, these folks cost the State's taxpayers $150 to $200 million. Figures released last year showed that the majority of buyers who took advantage of the program bought SUVs with regular gas tanks in addition to a small propane tank. Far fewer were the numbers of people who bought electric cars or non-SUVs.

People in the Valley seem to care more about their immediate desires and image than the ramifications those types of choices cause. It is probably no coincidence that Phoenix boasts four major sports teams, one of few cities that do, and that Arizona is ranked 13th among the states in SUVs per capita. Proposition 302, which taxpayers approved last year, requires the city or county where the new football stadium will be built to fund supporting infrastructure. State taxpayers will be required to come up with $6.5 million in 2002, $200 million over 30 years. With Proposition 302, Phoenix joined the dubious ranks of the populaces of other large cities who insist on making everyone else pay for their hobby. Instead of growing into a polite, cultured cosmopolitan region, Phoenix has grown into a selfish and rude metropolis.

Contributions to the arts are shockingly below the level of monies given to the arts in other large cities. A study by the Arizona Republic published earlier this year found that the Valley's four major arts organizations (opera, ballet, symphony, and art) receive only one-tenth to one-third the amount that other large cities arts organizations receive in endowments. Unlike the other cities, this amount doesn't even cover ten percent of the costs of two of the organizations. The message Valley residents are sending is that they would rather force everyone to fund their sports hobbies, than spend a little of their own money on the arts. This attitude seems to fit right in with the selfish choice to drive around in a monster SUV sporting a patriotic flag demonstrating your right to use up as much oil as you please, rather than showing a little civic interest in your neighbors and
culture.

Next time a suburban warrior pulls up next to you in her brand-new, spotless, impeccably painted $50,000 SUV, ask her how it handles four-by-fouring in the wilderness.

Rachel Alexander is a practicing attorney in Arizona and is a former columnist for the Arizona Daily Wildcat where she won three awards for those columns (The Leadership Institute's Best Conservative Columnist - Honorable Mention, The Institute for Intercollegiate Studies Polly Award - Grand Prize, and the Second Amendment Madison Award).

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