Let me say it upfront: I hate SUVs. I always have. I see them as emblematic of narcissistic individualism, the desire for material excess so prevalent in American culture. One reason I applauded high oil prices was the collapse in SUV sales, and I’m worried about a reversal in that trend. This post is inspired by an excellent book published in 2002, Keith Bradsher’s High and Mighty– The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, clearly the best and most comprehensive book written on the SUV phenomenon. I recommend particularly a couple of excellent reviews that book, by Gregg Easterbrook in the New Republic and Stephanie Mencimer in the Washington Monthly.
Of course, the number one reason to oppose SUVs is their “gas-guzzling” tendencies, their relative energy inefficiency, their non-trivial contribution to global warming. A little history here is instructive. When the CAFE standards were introduced in the 1970s, trucks were granted some laxity. As always, corporations try to seek loopholes, and they found one: they could classify SUVs as light trucks and sell them to customers who still yearned for the big unwieldy inefficient cars of yesteryear. Some actually claim that the CAFE standards led to the SUV phenomenon, whereas in the fact they represented a loophole that should have been closed. An effort was made to finally close this loophole in 2007, over much political opposition (from both parties). But much remains to be done.
Fuel efficiency standards in the United States lag the rest of the world dramatically, and successive political regimes simply turned a blind eye, especially to the (quite literal) elephant in the room– SUVs. As noted in a Pew report, the EU and Japan score well on fuel efficiency (around 45-50 mpg), with the US at the bottom of the pack (25 mpg), lagging even China (35 mpg). The problem can really be traced to SUVs. In the 1990s, when the SUV boom really took off, the official average “fleet” standard (the average of all new models by each manufacturer) was 20.7 miles per gallon for SUVs and 27.5 miles per gallon for cars. And some of the worst offenders get only 10-12 miles per gallon. SUVs spew 30 percent more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75 percent more nitrogen oxides in the air than passenger cars.
We need to make one point clear from Bradsher’s book: it’s not a problem of technology. It’s just that car manufacturers would rather focus on power and acceleration, making SUVs even more dangerous (more on that later). When they complain, remember that these same car companies resisted every safety improvement from seat belts to airbags proposed over the years by consumer advocates like Ralph Nader.
This makes for a good segue into safety issues. For SUVs are dangerous. Incredibly dangerous. This is indeed the crux of Bradsher’s book. He notes that vehicles on truck frames tend to handle poorly, and the body and frame may separate in an accident, something that would not happen in an ordinary car (all that metal does not make you safer). And occupant deaths are higher in SUVs than cars. Also, the notion that front-wheel drive systems make SUVS safer is fallacious. Since practically no SUVs are actually driven off-road (despite the vapid commercials), all this adds is weight and lowered fuel economy. The main reason why SUVs are so dangerous is the rollover risk, arising from the high center of gravity, the overloaded tires, and truck-like steering. Rollover deaths are about 1000 a year. In 2004, after the book was written, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that SUV drivers were 11% more likely to die in an accident than people in cars. Many who buy SUVS think sitting high makes them safer, whereas it fact it magnifies the danger. This got so bad that members of Congress (from both parties) put pressure on the NHTSA not even to test for rollover risk, and the manufacturers refuse to list the safe load.
If SUVs are so polluting, and so dangerous, why are they so popular? Well, one thing is the safety myth. But it’s more than that. According to market research by the manufacturers, SUV drivers tend to be “insecure and vain…. self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities”. They also don’t care about anybody’s kids but their own, and are very concerned with their image. They are noted by their “willingness to endanger other motorists so as to achieve small improvements in their personal safety.” With the SUV, image is key. Marketed as outdoors vehicles, they rarely leave the confines of middle-class suburbs. Many models are engineered to look as threatening as possible– the manufacturers know their market! One example quoted by Bradsher is the “grill guard” which has no purpose in an urban environment. The worst offender here, of course, is the Hummer, which takes every bad trait of the SUV and multiplies it by a factor of ten.
Allow me a short rant in conclusion. It’s no coincidence that road rage incidents tracked the SUV boom. SUVs take up 1.4 parking spots. If they are behind you, they will blind you with huge headlights. If they are on front of you, they will obscure your vision. Because they feel so high above the road, and so safe, they drive menacingly and cut people off at a whim. People have told me they felt compelled to buy an SUV because everyone else has one, and hence is the only way to stay safe in the metal jungle. Talk about an arms race!
In conclusion: yes, there are parts of the country where SUVs can serve a valid purpose. Except that most SUV drivers tend to live in the suburbs. The SUV craze really is an example of an aggressive American Calvinist individualism with a Hobbesian twist: everybody drives their own fortress; caring only about their own safety, utility, and comfort; oblivious to others and the environment. And it’s their God-given right, damn it!