This post is based on a couple of reviews of an excellent book published in 2002, Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty-- The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. The reviews are by Gregg Easterbrook in the New Republic and Stephanie Mencimer in the Washington Monthly. This is clearly the best and most comprehensive book written on the SUV phenomenon.
First, the notion that SUVs are gas-guzzling monstrosities that contribute to global warming is true. By law, SUVs are allowed to emit more pollutants than ordinary cars. 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. And even here, there are loopholes for SUVs: declare that they can run on ethanol and you are exempt. Bush promised to raise efficiency standards to a piddling 22.2 miles per gallon by 2007. It's not that the technology is not there. It is. It's just that car manufacturers would rather focus on power and acceleration, making SUVs even more dangerous (more on that later). Consider also that SUVs spew 30 percent more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75 percent more nitrogen oxides in the air than passenger cars. It also adds to the well-known oil addiction, a boon to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Indeed, Arianna Huffington claimed SUV drivers supported terrorism. A provocative claim with a kernal of truth. And some evangelicals asked: what would Jesus drive? Indeed.
Second, 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.
What's even worse is the risk SUVs pose to other drivers and pedestrians. In an accident with a car, SUVs are likely to mount the car and crush the occupants. Bradsher believes SUVs cause about 2000 deaths a year from accidents with ordinary cars. He also shows that, despite lower drunk driving incidence and the development of new safety features, the reduction in automobile deaths came to a standstill because of SUVs. Here's a chilling fact: if a car hits another car in the side, the driver of the hit car is 6.6 times more likely to die than the hitting driver. If the hitter is an SUV, it rises to 30 to 1. Also, a pedestrian is twice as likely to die when hit by an SUV than a car.
If SUVs are so polluting, and so dangerous, why are they so popular? Well, one thing is the safety myth. But it's much 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."
Who could these people possibly be? Well, how about baby-boomers, the most selfish and narcissistic generation of all time? And these are indeed the biggest customers for SUVs. 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.
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! After all, it's easier to cut somebody off when you are big and threatening! 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 is all the bad traits of the SUV combined and put on steroids steroids.
It reminds me of something Cardinal George of Chicago once said: American culture is fundamentally Calvinist, lauding individualism and disdaining the notion community. SUVs are the worst embodiment of such a tendency.