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
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.
But wait a minute, you say: my SUV may be a menace to others, but at least it keeps me and mine safe! Many seem to rationalize the SUV in this way. Maybe I'll kill someone else, but I won't die.
Statistics do show that people inside SUVs are more likely to survive a front-to-side crash and somewhat more likely to survive a front-to-front or back-to-front crash. But these gains are offset because riding in an SUV renders you far more likely to die in a rollover. Check this table, again from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It shows that a Chevrolet S10, an SUV, is 20 times as likely to kill its occupants in a rollover as a Honda Civic is. The Ford Explorer is twice as likely to kill its driver in a rollover, the Jeep Cherokee almost as bad. Rollover risks for other SUVs are similarly dreadful.
Women buy a significant percentage of SUVs because, marketing studies show, they feel safe in something hulking and high. But listen to the TV ads carefully: They imply that SUVs are safer but never actually say it. The SUV mentality might even backfire on buyers seeking safety. Some safety experts think SUV deaths are high partly because drivers believe they have become invincible and therefore drive like maniacs.
Then there are the environmental costs. Because of lobbying, SUVs are exempt from many standards that apply to standard cars; they may legally emit up to 5.5 times as much pollution per mile. Buyers of standard cars pay extra for anti-pollution devices, while SUV owners merrily pollute away. Federal rules are slowly catching up to this problem but do not require SUVs to match the pollution-control qualities of regular cars until the year 2009. Several major cities, including Atlanta and Washington, D.C., which five years ago were well on their way to meeting federal regional anti-smog standards, now are losing ground because SUV mania has generated so much unexpected smog.
Gobbling gas has three damaging effects. First, increased demand drives up the price of gasoline. Recent pump-price spikes have not been caused by supply shortages--OPEC keeps cutting production because the world petroleum market is mildly glutted--but by refineries having trouble meeting SUV-led demand.
Detroit's Big Three carmakers know that SUV fuel efficiency can be increased to at least that of regular cars by use of existing technology. The National Academy of Sciences just made this official, releasing a study saying that a big increase in SUV MPG is possible now at essentially no net costs because savings on gasoline would offset the price of adding energy conservation hardware. Yet the government is content with the Big Three's saying only that they "intend" to boost MPG in the future.
The situation is sufficiently out of hand that in May 2000, Ford Motor Company chairman William Clay Ford declared in his company's first "corporate citizenship report" that his own company's SUVs are dangerous, polluting, and contribute to global warming. But, Ford said, his company would continue to build SUVs because they are the company's most profitable product. He added, "If we didn't provide that vehicle, someone else would." This is one of history's hoariest of rationales.
Others rationalize the SUV as the product of Darwinian forces on the highway. In an era of road rage, they say, you need to be in a hulking, antisocial vehicle to fight back. But might it be that we're in an era of road rage because of the SUV?
Road rage became an issue in the mid 1990s--just when the huge-vehicle craze took off. SUVs (and their cousins, the "light" pickup truck) physically occupy more of the road, increasing congestion and stress. They straddle parking places, making everyone furious. They are styled to appear hostile and aggressive, as if their drivers were permanently flipping the finger to everyone else. The vehicles' designs bring out the worst qualities in those behind the wheel, even soccer-mom drivers--speeding, cutting off, and general driving-like-a-lunatic seem to proliferate in direct proportion to the number of SUVs on the road. The whole ethos of the SUV can be summarized in the phrase F You, and that sentiment is taking over the American highway. Manufacturers such as GM tell us they want to make driving a better experience. Meanwhile, they are furiously marketing vehicles that make the road a miserable place.
Any lingering doubt about the nastiness of SUVs should dissolve with a new study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found that SUV drivers really are on cell phones more: in fact, twice as likely as drivers of regular cars to be yakking while driving. "I'm obviously not paying attention to what I'm doing," SUV drivers want to say to the world, "so get outta my way!"
Less than a decade ago, the epitome of the soccer-mom car was the Volvo station wagon, a mild and modest vehicle in which occupants actually were safer than average. Now our road ideal has become vehicles that combine selfishness, environmental harm, and needless risk to others, with an illusion of personal security that doesn't exist. It's time for the SUV tide to turn, through a combination of federal requirements that SUVs match regular cars for fuel use, pollutants, and safety; through conscientious buyers shunning these monstrosities unless they have some genuine need for one; and through spiritual people directing opprobrium to this most unspiritual of modern products.