Is Big Bad?: SUV Critics Hold Consumers in Contempt

Reprinted with permission from the August/September issue of Reason magazine.

High and Mighty: SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, by Keith Bradsher, New York: PublicAffairs, 468 pages, $28

Talk about stupidity! What kind of idiot would pay thousands of dollars extra for a poorly designed, uncomfortable, unsafe vehicle that guzzles gasoline and hogs the road? What kind of country would raise so many of these idiots that, in the span of two decades, this vehicle would go from a minuscule market share to nearly one-quarter of all new auto sales?

The vehicle, of course, is the sport utility vehicle, and we are the nation of idiot SUV owners. This is the gist of Keith Bradsher’s High and Mighty: SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. Bradsher, a New York Times reporter who covered the auto industry for over five years, has written a breathtaking book–breathtaking in the array of arguments he offers against this vehicle, the industry that makes it, the people who buy it, the society that allows them to buy it, the planet that contains that society…you get the picture.

In Bradsher’s view, the SUV is a menace to both its occupants and other drivers. Its design is outdated and inappropriate; its size, looks, and four-wheel drive bring out the worst in drivers; it clogs streets and fouls the air. Worst of all, its fuel economy is socially unacceptable.

High and Mighty has helped arm a growing anti-SUV movement whose members range from the Sierra Club and Public Citizen to the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign and Arianna Huffington’s Detroit Project. Bradsher’s book also has triggered some memorable anti-SUV diatribes by individuals.

Earlier this year, The New Republic carried a cover story by the normally sane environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook, bearing the understated title "Axle of Evil: America’s Twisted Love Affair with Sociopathic Cars." It begins with Easterbrook contemplating the lines of SUVs outside his daughter’s public school one morning, observing how SUV drivers supposedly bully their way past cars as they drop off their kids, and soon turns into a disquisition on modern automotive life, with some national security implications thrown in. Here’s a sample line: "Every time an SUV or light pickup leaves the showroom in the United States, fanatics smile in the Persian Gulf." Al Qaeda, evidently, has direct access to car dealers’ inventory control systems.

Perhaps Easterbrook was just having a bad car day, or perhaps he should put his daughter in a different school. In any case, his tirade illustrates how easily what were once mere irritations of daily life now turn into political crusades. Size differences can be bothersome in many contexts, but these annoyances tend to be manageable so long as you keep your temper and don’t call in the politicians.

Politicians, however, are precisely the people to whom High and Mighty looks for a solution to the SUV Crisis. Bradsher is not simply interested in helping us make better car-buying decisions or instructing us in driving etiquette. He wants legal changes: revisions in the tax code to bring SUV business write-offs down to the level for cars, tougher air emission standards (some of which are already slated to take effect soon), and new state insurance regulations to mandate more precise model-based ratings. He even wants higher penalties for reckless SUV driving, arguing that juries should deal more harshly with an SUV driver whose automotive needs could have been served by a car. Most important, he wants an overhaul of the federal fuel economy standards, popularly known as CAFE (for Corporate Average Fuel Economy)–a program that fueled SUV popularity in the first place by downsizing passenger cars while treating SUVs and other light trucks more leniently.

Some of Bradsher’s narratives are entertaining, such as the description of his attempt to figure out how much cargo his Ford Explorer could carry. The owner’s manual advised Explorer drivers to weigh their empty vehicle at a highway truck inspection station, then subtract that from the gross weight shown on the vehicle sticker. Those stations, however, served only freight trucks, so Bradsher instead had to join a line of garbage trucks waiting to be weighed at a dump. The book also includes some delightful accounts of the design contortions that automakers go through in order to get their vehicles classified as light trucks rather than cars.

But most of Bradsher’s arguments involve product judgments that SUV owners are perfectly capable of making on their own, and his contentions ultimately boil down to some questionable claims about what constitutes a "good" vehicle. "SUVs are terrible substitutes for cars," he declares, and if millions of SUV owners disagree, perhaps they need the guiding hand of new laws.

Consider Bradsher’s treatment of four-wheel drive. In his view, 4WD is an essential part of the off-road fantasy that sells SUVs, a hazardous feature that benefits practically no one. 4WD is good for "deep mud or thick snow," he writes, but unnecessary on pavement that’s "plowed…before the flakes become more than a few inches deep." He quotes one auto executive who claims there’s "no actual customer need" for 4WD.

But anyone who knows anything about snow (or about municipal plowing) knows that the stuff piles up. Streets rarely get plowed to perfection, driveways are cleared only if you pay for it (and even then not right away), and snowdrifts come and go. And you don’t have to live in the boondocks to encounter mud occasionally; quite often, simply pulling onto an unpaved shoulder will suffice. There’s nothing wrong with millions of people deciding to pay for vehicles that can handle these conditions. Even Consumer Reports, which can hardly be dismissed as a car-nut publication, notes that 4WD "markedly improves traction and directional stability in snow and mud."

Bradsher is unwilling to accept the possibility that SUVs are popular because they are enjoyable and useful. He claims their off-road image is an insidious enticement, even though he acknowledges that most SUV buyers fully understand how infrequently they may travel off-road. He touts large cars as "excellent alternatives," even though they may be far from excellent for people who travel with lots of kids, friends, dogs, bikes, or anything that needs towing. In his view, the people who "really" need SUVs, as opposed to those who "think" they do, are few and far between.

Bradsher’s disdain for consumer behavior makes sense, because he doesn’t think much of SUV fans as people. He cites auto market research that supposedly finds SUV owners have "reptilian" mentalities, focused on "survival and reproduction," overly fearful of crime, and "self-oriented" in lifestyle. (Minivan owners, in contrast, "embrace the family image" of their vehicles and "tend to be extremely nice people.") With stereotypes like this, it’s clear that SUV owners can’t be trusted–except, perhaps, in those snow emergencies when hospitals call on them for help.

Bradsher’s most influential arguments involve safety. He contends that most SUV buyers think their vehicles are safer than cars and that this is a huge mistake. SUVs meet fewer government safety standards; they supposedly have poorer brakes, interact terribly with highway guardrails, and are especially vulnerable to rollovers, where their death rate is twice that of cars. And then, of course, there was the unforgettable Ford-Firestone tire disaster, which provided the rare spectacle of two companies severing a decades-long business relationship as each publicly blamed the other for a deadly product defect.

These critiques, however, add up to far less than one might think. In terms of overall occupant protection, cars and SUVs are practically equivalent in terms of fatality rates–a point Bradsher acknowledges but which is easy for the reader to miss. Occupant fatality rates are the best single basis on which to compare the safety of these two vehicle types, because these rates represent each deadly type of accident in proportion to how frequently it occurs. The National Academy of Sciences’ 2001 report on CAFE standards reported an annual occupant death rate for SUVs of 140 per million registered vehicles, compared to 138 for cars. All in all, the two types of vehicles were virtually identical in terms of safety.

Moreover, the largest SUVs, those over 5,000 pounds (e.g., Ford Expeditions, Chevy Tahoes, and Toyota Land Cruisers), had a lower rate than any other class of vehicle available: 92. The poorest-performing SUV category was the smallest: The under-3,000 pound vehicles, such as the 1997 Geo Tracker.

The death rate for this class, 195 per million, was more than double that of the biggest SUVs. But even these models outperformed minicars, whose death rate of 249 per million was the worst of any vehicle (unlike their fuel efficiency, which is tops). The smallest SUVs have been upsized over the years, moreover, and so there are practically no new SUV models in this least-crashworthy category.

In short, SUVs are probably as safe or safer than cars as a class. Moreover, those who choose the most despised SUV models (the largest ones) for safety reasons are not making a mistake.

Occupant protection, however, is only part of Bradsher’s safety critique. Even if SUVs protect their occupants well, there is still the claim that they kill other people–in particular, occupants of cars unlucky enough to collide with SUVs. Bradsher argues that SUV-car crash "incompatibility" accounts for perhaps 1,000 deaths per year.

Crash incompatibility is not a phenomenon that arose with sport utility vehicles. Trucks have long been incompatible with cars, and cars are incompatible with motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians. But while accident photos of subcompacts demolished by hulking SUVs grab attention, has the popularity of SUVs really changed the risks faced by car drivers? If it has, then the number of car drivers killed in two-vehicle crashes, as a fraction of all car drivers killed, should have risen dramatically as SUV sales soared. But this simply hasn’t happened, according to Dr. Leonard Evans, an internationally recognized traffic safety researcher: "If SUVs were substantially increasing risks to car occupants, then it must necessarily follow that this ratio would increase with increasing numbers of SUVs on the road. But in fact the data from 1994 forward show no hint of any such increase."

Even if owners were imposing serious new risks on car occupants, this fact would not justify government action. We accept altered automotive risk patterns all the time when technologies or consumer desires change. As Bradsher himself notes, the advent of theft-proof auto locks spurred a rise in carjackings. Carjacking is far more violent than other types of auto theft, but one could hardly argue that this risk of physical injury is a reason for outlawing good car locks.

But it is Bradsher’s treatment of CAFE standards that is especially troubling. He uncritically accepts the need for government action to restrict gasoline consumption, then advocates CAFE-style mile-per-gallon regulatory mandates because the alternative of gasoline tax hikes is politically unfeasible. But tax hikes are unfeasible because they are highly visible, whereas CAFE’s impact is supposedly acceptable because it’s inconspicuous. Given Bradsher’s concern about misleading industry campaigns, his endorsement of this opaque regulatory scheme is curious, especially given CAFE’s somewhat notorious history. CAFE kills people by forcing manufacturers to make vehicles smaller and therefore less crashworthy than they otherwise would be. The Department of Transportation has steadfastly kept the public in the dark about this effect; in a 1992 lawsuit brought by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Consumer Alert, a federal appeals court said the department’s approach was based on "legerdemain" and "mumbo-jumbo." The 2001 National Academy of Sciences CAFE study estimated CAFE’s lethal impact at between 1,300 and 2,600 lives per year.

Bradsher acknowledges this effect, though with far less detail than he devotes to SUV risks. He misses entirely the fact that the Ford-Firestone tire fiasco was due in part to Ford’s quest for higher fuel economy. And while Bradsher describes several possible reforms of CAFE, it is not clear that any of them would alleviate the program’s deadly impact on safety.

In an unintentionally amusing passage, Bradsher disparages the "automakers’ absurd suspicions that a shadowy conspiracy of environmentalists, consumer activists and journalists wanted to take Americans’ SUVs away." But between the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaigners, the Arianna Huffington ads, and the recent torchings of SUVs on dealer lots by radical greens, those suspicions don’t seem all that far-fetched. As "high and mighty" as SUVs might seem, they’re nothing compared to the attitudes of their critics.