Are SUVs Immoral?

The evidence against the mobile monsters is mounting, but Americans keep buying them.

BY: Gregg Easterbrook


Suppose your neighbor did something that made him or her dramatically more likely to kill you. Suppose, at the same time, the neighbor began trying like crazy to increase smog and the greenhouse effect and, to top it off, to stand in the street giving the finger to everyone driving by. We wouldn't hesitate to describe such a person as antagonistic and distinctly unspiritual. But it's all hypothetical, since few Americans behave in such antisocial ways.

Actually, guess again--the number of Americans who behave this way recently passed 20 million. That's the estimate for those who own oversize sports-utility vehicles, from the entry-level, 5,000-pound Dodge Durango that temporarily eclipses the sun as it passes by to the supertanker-class Ford

Don't Blame SUVs

"I yield to no one in my dislike of the SUVs, trucks masquerading as family cars. Yet blaming them for global warning is fraud."--Fr. Andrew Greeley

Excursion and Chevrolet Suburban, which demand new area codes. Things will get even worse in 2002, when General Motors introduces a mass-marketed Hummer version of the enormous Humvee military transports. The Hummer will allow drive-alone commuters to insulate themselves with as much bulk metal as an entire infantry squad in combat. GM says it hopes to sell soon 100,000 Hummers a year, a fairly large number. The result may be a new plateau of gridlock that makes today's traffic jams seem placid by comparison.

In recent years, it has become common for everyone from editorialists to late-night comedians to deride SUVs. Surely, SUV owners are totally sick of hearing about how people don't like their cars. Yet sales of these mega-vehicles continue to sell briskly. Perhaps many buyers and owners do not understand that the case against SUVs isn't just a matter of taste, it is a matter of harm to the public. Consider:

First and foremost is that driving an SUV trebles the chance that you will kill someone else in a crash. SUVs kill because they weigh much more than regular cars and because their chassis are higher, increasing the chance they will ride over the hood of a standard car during a collision and then land atop the passenger compartment, crushing the occupants. In 1996, for example, SUVs colliding with cars killed more people than cars colliding with cars, even though, since cars are more numerous, car-to-car crashes outnumbered SUV-to-car crashes four to one. Thousands of Americans, estimates show, die avoidable deaths each year when their cars are hit by SUVs. These deaths are avoidable in the sense that an identical crash with a standard car would not have killed.

Ponder, for comparison, the current controversy regarding federal standards for arsenic in drinking water. A worst-case analysis says current arsenic standards cause about 100 premature deaths a year. While there are loud political cries to tightly regulate arsenic in water, the much greater danger of SUV size and the ride-over problem of SUV design are entirely unregulated.

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