SUVs are dangerous but they make big profits so they are here to stay

Ford hopes to divert attention from the real problem with their Sport Utility Vehicles.  They have recalled all Explorers to replace the Firestone tires, which they say have resulted in fatalities.  But replacement of tires is largely cosmetic, — the main problem is the design of the SUV itself.


SUVs are have a high centre of gravity.  This makes them tipsy and susceptible to rollover.  Not only do SUVs rollover more easily, but the fatalities in those rollovers are higher than in cars.  In fact, 60 per cent of SUV fatalities were the result of rollovers in 1999, compared to 23 per cent for cars, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States.

The higher rollover fatality rate is because SUVs don’t roll over gently.  They are rectangular and roll like a brick.  The sides of the vehicle hit the ground hard, transferring energy to the occupants.  Cars have a lower profile — they tend to roll like a log and come to a stop relatively slowly.

There are also more casualties when SUVs hit cars.  They are basically a ladder shaped frame with the body bolted on.  That solid frame acts like a battering ram in a collision with a car.  The frame rides over a car’s bumpers or doorsills, punching into the passenger compartment.

But SUV drivers needn’t feel smug knowing they drive a battering ram on wheels.  They are also more susceptible to injury.  Unlike cars, SUVs are not designed to crumple.  When a well-designed car hits a solid object, the car body folds to absorb shock and protecting the passenger.   In a SUV, the frame does not crumple.  The impact forces are transferred to the driver and passengers.

SUVs don’t corner as well; they use more fuel and pollute more;  give the driver a false sense of security; take longer to accelerate and brake.  So what makes them so popular?  Marketing.  By the late 1980’s, Detroit’s marketers had identified a new class of driver — well paid, pleasure seeking, fast driving, concerned with appearance, and an above average fear of road dangers and crime in general.

Add to this demographic the television spectacle of Operation Desert Storm in which the Free World kicked Saddam Hussein’s butt out of Kuwait.  The image of real men in off-road army vehicles riding across the desert  was indelibly burned in American minds.  Stop worrying, implied the desert heroes, there is no oil crisis.   Whenever you baby boomers feel the urge to buy a sensible vehicle, remember that all the free world has to do is liberate an oppressed country and relieve them of their excess oil.

Automakers capitalized on the convergence of a popular war and mid-life angst in baby boomers.   Profits are $10,000 on each SUV sold — ten times the profit on a car or minivan.  The profit is in the simple design.  Basically it’s a pick-up truck with a new body. No need to design the vehicle from scratch.  No need to design an efficient engine or new drive train.

If the carnage on the road caused by SUVs is not a sobering thought, then damage to the environment should be.   Each SUV produces twice the carbon dioxide of a mid-sized car and triple that of a Honda Civic, says Paul Roberts in Harper’s magazine.

The environmental harm is not only to our atmosphere.  President Bush has vowed to find more oil to power gas-guzzling SUVs by drilling for oil in the fragile Artic.  Bush is not only willing to risk damage to arctic water and wildlife, but to the health indigenous people, including Canadians.  Pollution doesn’t stop at the Alaska boarder.

There is no need to drill for oil in the Arctic.  All the proposed oil from Alaska — 42 million U.S. gallons a day — could be saved by a modest improvement of only 3 miles per gallon in the fuel economy of SUVs.

Automakers even have the gall to advertise off-road SUVs as a way of  communing with nature.  Commercials show happy families driving through the wilderness.  All the while, automakers know that SUVs are dangerous to both nature and living things.  The hypocrisy of this advertising leaves me cold.


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