But if Runge is right, why does his ultimate boss, George W. Bush, want people to buy even more SUVs? The answer is that the runaway success of the SUV means it has become too crucial to the automobile industry's well-beingto let safety worries affect its commercial viability. President Bush's new $674 billion economic stimulus plan includes tax incentives for small businesses to acquire SUVs- incentives so generous that many will effectively be able to acquire them free, by claiming them as a business expense against tax.
Critics say this will not only boost the numbers of the biggest SUVs on the roads but also encourage the design of even larger gas-guzzling models.
The charge levelled at some SUVs by Runge, head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is that their high centre of gravity makes them prone to roll over in accidents. And their high stance on the road makes them more likely to kill people in ordinary cars struck by them. In addition, SUV roofs are more liable to be crushed in a rollover, causing horrendous injuries to those inside. Runge is urgently calling for the automobile industry to deploy- or develop- technologies that will make SUVs safer. The industry refutes the claims and argues that SUVs are among the safest vehicles on the road, but experts say Runge's numbers stack up.
SUVs date back to the early 1980s, when the US automobile industry hit upon a cheap strategy for escaping the effects of an enduring recession: fixing a luxury passenger cabin on a light-truck chassis, and selling the resulting hybrid at a premium. This meant they could use existing production lines and chassis parts, cutting costs at a stroke. And, classified as light trucks, SUVs can emit more pollutants (1.1 grams per mile of nitrogen oxides against a car's 0.2 g) and burn more gas (20.7 miles per US gallon against a car's 27.5 mpg) so there's no need to fit them with expensive pollution-control devices.
Marketed as fashionable, sporty and safe vehicles, the SUV's popularity has skyrocketed. SUVs accounted for 25 per cent of the new vehicles sold in the US in 2002. But they are not nearly so popular in Europe, where vehicle tax regimes punish fuel inefficiency, and market share there is just 4 per cent.
Many SUVs are large and have an intimidating road presence, but that's part of what makes them safe, says George Peterson of AutoPacific, a Californian market research firm. People feel safer in aggressive vehicles, he says. However, Joan Claybrook, a former head of NHTSA and now head of consumer rights group Public Citizen, says aggressive SUVs are making others buy similar vehicles. "It's now a highway arms race, where if you want to be safe, you get bigger and bigger," she says.
Peterson says that the higher seating in an SUV provides better visibility and contributes to safety, although he accepts that their higher centre of gravity makes them more liable to roll over compared with low-slung cars.
The automobile makers disagree. "SUVs are among the safest vehicles on the road," says Eron Shosteck of the Washington DC-based Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 10 major companies, including Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler. "They perform exceptionally well in front and side-impact crashes, which are the two most common crash types." He points out that rollovers make up less than 3 per cent of all road crashes.
But examine only the fatal crashes and a different picture emerges. In 2001, 19.5 per cent of all fatal road crashes involved rollovers, and 35.2 per cent of SUV-related fatal crashes involved rollovers. And in terms of fatalities from all types of crash, SUVs are slightly more unsafe than passenger cars. In 1999, for every 100,000 registered vehicles in the US, there were 16.4 fatalities in passenger cars, and 17.8 in SUVs. What's more, the aggressive design of SUVs ensures passenger cars come off worst in collisions with them. Last month, researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo, found that in crashes between small cars and large SUVs, the risk of death was 24 times greater in the car.
But there are ways to make SUVs safer. Some manufacturers are now building them using car chassis that handle better and are more stable than the light-truck models. And technologies such as electronic stability control (ESC) will help prevent rollovers, which occur mainly during sudden manoeuvres to avoid crashing. Drivers lose control during such manoeuvres and the SUV leaves the road, tipping over. ESC constantly monitors speed, direction and steering angle, and if the vehicle starts to slide sideways, it applies brakes to the appropriate wheel to bring it back into line. "We see this as the biggest safety feature that specifically helps SUVs," says David Champion, director of automobile testing at Consumer Reports, the Consumer Union's publication. "It should be standard on all SUVs."
Another safety aid is the side-curtain airbag. These deploy from roof rails above the doors when sensors detect an impending rollover.
They protect the occupants' heads as the vehicle hits the road and also prevent them from being thrown out. "Being ejected from the vehicle during a rollover is the biggest fatality area," says Champion. Most deaths in rollovers are due to occupants not wearing seat belts. But deaths occur even with seat belts in place. Claybrook says that rollover sensors should kick in and tighten the seat belts, and even lock doors, to stop passengers from being thrown out.
Safety advocates are also pushing for parity between SUV and car regulation. At the moment, SUVs don't have to meet the bumper standards and bumper heights that cars do. "People say it's not a problem in the SUV. But it's a problem in the small car being creamed by the SUV," says Champion.
Shosteck says many safety features are already available. "The industry is now ahead of where government requirements have us," he says. Yet while some luxury SUVs come with standard safety features, they are optional or not available on others. Many believe that the government must make such features standard, but regulations are nowhere in sight. "This would be an extra expense, and it's not clear how much of that could be passed on to consumers," says Keith Bradsher, author of High and Mighty, a critique of the SUV phenomenon.
Claybrook wants more stringent roof-crush standards for SUVs. NHTSA requires that roofs crumple less than 12.7 centimetres when a plate slowly applies a force of up to 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle. But since an SUV doesn't always flip over 180 degrees and land gently on its roof in a rollover, these standards don't mean much, she says.
Critics say the lenient regulations covering SUVs are due to the industry's political influence. Light-vehicle production accounts for 3.7 per cent of US GDP- with SUV sales making up around a quarter of that. That's a lot of power vested in one vehicle type.
Bradsher has another theory: "The auto industry has tremendous political power, because it is based in Michigan and Ohio," he says. These are key battlegrounds in presidential elections and neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to antagonise them. But Claybrook hopes public opinion will force the industry to listen. "I think the manufacturers are really feeling a lot of pressure to redesign these vehicles now, which is wonderful."
New Scientist issue: 8 March 2003
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