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Don't be fooled! SUVs are America's biggest waste on wheels

by Shannon Stollenmaier, People & Places editor


They are marketed as a must-have for the outdoorsy, adventurous type. They make robust statements with their size—feeding on the philosophy that bigger is better. They provide a sense of safety and protection with the appearance of a durable structure. Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, the Sports Utility Vehicle, commonly known as the SUV, is one of America’s biggest advertising hoaxes and political scandals.

Before you step on the gas and speed out of this editorial, consider the following issues. Ask yourself if any of these matter to you: environmental protection, family and personal safety, honest advertising, economy, and practicality.

If you answered, “Yes,” to any of the above, put on the brakes because the SUV is the archenemy of many things that we say we value.

SUV purchases have been on an upward trend since the late 1990s, and they now make up the biggest portion of automotive sales in the United States. Americans have forsaken practicality and reason to engage in an unfortunate love affair with America’s biggest waste on wheels.

During the late 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created by the Nixon administration, passed the Clean Air Act, which established Federal regulations on air quality, motor vehicle emission, and fuel standards. The trend at this time in American history, probably a result of OPEC-generated oil shortages, was toward fuel-efficient, small cars. Detroit wasn’t producing them. Japan was.

Detroit needed to pitch a new product to save itself. At the same time, American Motors wanted to sell its vehicle, the Jeep, popular with the Paul Bunyan types, to average Americans.

It’s been reported that American Motors’ lobbyists told the Nixon administration that if the company went bankrupt, blame would be placed on the EPA regulations. So what does the government do? Rightfully, the government should enforce the Federal standards, but the regulation of businesses is never popular, so, naturally, the administration exempted American Motors from the anti-pollution, anti-smog regulations on the basis that trucks are not primary vehicles. Go figure. Of course, other manufacturers caught on to the Jeep’s federally favored position, and demanded the same free pass for their trucks and truck-like vehicles.

Detroit was quick to call anything new a truck, and enlarge it to fit the definition. Today one in every four new vehicles sold in America is an SUV. People are using SUVs as cars, not for the purposes originally intended – heavy transport, long-distance moves, riding on rough terrain. So here we have these large, obtrusive vehicles driving all-around town emitting significantly more pollution because they are driven more frequently. They violate the original justification for Jeep’s exemption. SUV makers are getting rich off the regulatory free-ride at the expense of Mother Nature – which means at the expense of your health.

Let’s touch on fuel efficiency or lack there of. SUVs have a terrible mileage record. EPA regulations requires cars to run 22 miles per gallon. The law has been bent for SUVs which are allowed 12 miles per gallon. Point blank, these gas-guzzling oil hogs use more fuel operating with maximum inefficiency.

The inefficient fuel system is another area that needs Congressional attention, especially in this sensitive time as war with Iraq, an oil supplier, is a looming possibility. More fuel pumped into inefficient SUV gas systems is wasteful and contradictory as we put food on the table and weapons in the hands of our opponents. Is it a coincidence that we buy $12 billion of oil from Iraq every year and that SUVs consume $12 billion every year?

Regardless of the disregard for environmental protection, Americans continue to buy SUVs. Why? Safety is noted as one of the top reasons for SUV purchases. Because the SUV is as big as a boat with more metallic meat protecting the driver, an interstate accident is expected to be merely a minor misfortune. The SUV is marketed as the invincible cage with the ability to superhumanly protect its owner from the perils of highway wrecks. However, these beliefs are simply not true. SUVs are a danger to themselves.

In the PBS program, Frontline, investigative reporters examined the dangers of SUVs and their tendency to roll over. The documentary, “Rollover: The Hidden History of the SUV,” reported that more than 12,000 people have died in rollover accidents since the first SUV was bought almost 20 years ago.

The common occurrence of SUV rollover-related deaths was brought to Congress’ attention so that proper regulation could be established. However, our elected representatives once again ignored these cases in favor of business deregulation and the promotion of the automobile industry. After all, industry contributes more to election campaigns than do individual people. Congress gave its attention to the dangers of SUVs only after the Firestone tire incidents in fall of 2000. What did they do? Nothing.

Do you want to know what SUVs really are? They are nothing more than car bodies mounted on truck frames. A danger in itself but also a dangerous design that makes the SUV narrower and taller - and thus with a higher center of gravity than regular pickup trucks and cars. Thus, there is an increased tendency for the vehicle to rollover even at speeds as low as 20 m.p.h.

SUV manufacturers, such as The Ford Motor Company, knew that. Prior to the release of Ford’s Bronco II, engineers concluded, based on data gathered from test drives, that this vehicle would cause more accidents and deaths than other cars because of its too-tall, too-narrow design. The problem could be fixed by lowering the center of gravity to increase stability. However, the prescription for the ailment would cost an additional 18 months in labor and money. What was more important, consumer safety or profit? Easy. Businesses are in business to make money. Ford placed a warning disclaimer on the sun visor and released Bronco II knowing its deficiencies.

A bigger-than-normal car-like body mounted on a light pickup truck frame does not do well when it comes to suspension, acceleration, and passenger compartment integrity. For most passenger cars, frame and body are welded together forming a solid shell around the passengers. In SUVs, the body or the passenger compartment has sheared off the frame in collisions. Even though SUVs encompass their passengers with heavier, more durable metal, time and again they perform worse than average cars in Federal crash worthiness tests. (NOTE: The 1997 Chevy Blazer, General Motors Jimmy, and Oldsmobile Bravada earned one star in these tests, which means they are “death traps” for passengers.) Passenger cars seldom score less than three stars on such tests.

A recent SUV study by the National Research Center, discovered that passenger deaths were higher in the SUV-type automobiles than in regular cars. What does that mean? It’s simple. You and your family have a higher probability of dying in an accident if you are riding in an SUV instead of a standard car. It’s the quality (safety design) not the quantity (size of the car) that matters.

So lets recap. Twenty-five percent of Americans are driving around in environmental destroyers that are confirmed as being less safe than average cars. Does this make sense?

So if consumers choose to disregard the environment and comprise their safety, why do they buy SUVs? Advertising. It’s purely the bandwagon effect. Everybody has one so I should have one! I won’t deny that SUVs look cool. “They are big yet sporty. They are rugged yet luxurious,” said Frontline. That’s exactly what advertising gurus want you to think. SUV campaigns are meant to manage your views on what makes a good car, to create a trend, and produce a demand for a product that brings up to $15,000 profit for every SUV sold. SUV advertising sells safety, ruggedness, adventure, and space. Boy, makes me want to run out the door and exchange my 1991 Nissan Sentra for a car that really counts! But don’t be fooled. As we have already seen, SUVs are not safe and few people actually use them as all-terrain vehicles.

Furthermore, the impressions of ruggedness and adventure are just impressions. Having an SUV will in no way transform suburbanites into camp-fire-cooking, outdoor-plumbing-using adventurers. You aren’t any more cool or stylish driving an SUV. Rather, like an ill-guided, naive consumer, you have succumbed to one of America’s greatest advertising hoaxes, buying into the trend, and riding with the rest of the foolish fish in the sea of SUVs.

Source: George Easterbrook, “Axle of Evil – The Scandal of the SUV.” The New Republic. January 20, 2003.



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