Sport utility vehicles have taken over America's roads during the last decade, and are on their way to taking over the world's roads. The four-wheel-drive vehicles offer a romantic vision of outdoor adventure to deskbound baby boomers. The larger models provide lots of room for families and their gear. Their size gives them an image of safety. The popularity of SUVs has revived the economy of the upper Midwest and has helped power the American economy since the early 1990s.
Yet the proliferation of SUVs has created huge problems. Their safe image is an illusion. They roll over too easily, killing and injuring occupants at an alarming rate, and they are dangerous to other road users, inflicting catastrophic damage to cars that they hit and posing a lethal threat to pedestrians. Their "green" image is also a mirage, because they contribute far more than cars to smog and global warming. Their gas-guzzling designs increase American dependence on imported oil at a time when anti-American sentiment is prevalent in the Middle East.
The success of SUVs comes partly from extremely cynical design and marketing decisions by automakers and partly from poorly drafted government regulations. The manufacturers' market researchers have decided that millions of baby boomers want an adventurous image and care almost nothing about putting others at risk to achieve it, so they have told auto engineers to design vehicles accordingly. The result has been unusually tall, menacing vehicles like the Dodge Durango, with its grille resembling a jungle cat's teeth and its flared fenders that look like bulging muscles in a savage jaw.
Automakers are able to produce behemoths that guzzle gas, spew pollution, and endanger their occupants and other motorists because of loopholes in government regulations. When the United States imposed safety, environmental and tax rules on automobiles in the 1970s, much tougher standards were set for cars than for pickup trucks, vans and the off-road vehicles that have since evolved into sport utility vehicles. Many of these loopholes still exist, and have spread to other countries that have copied American regulations. The result has been a public policy disaster, with automakers given an enormous and unintended incentive to shift production away from cars and toward inefficient, unsafe, heavily polluting SUVs.
No automotive safety issue has ever captured the nation's attention with such intensity as the many rollover crashes of Ford Explorer sport utility vehicles equipped with Firestone tires that failed. Ford and Firestone have been rightly condemned for cutting corners in the design and manufacturing of the Explorer and the tires, and for doing little for several years as some of their employees learned of problems with the tires.
Yet terrible as the tire-related crashes have been, killing as many as 300 people worldwide over the last decade, they are just a tiny part of the safety and environmental problems associated with sport utility vehicles. These problems are already needlessly killing thousands of Americans each year. Hundreds of people are also dying unnecessarily in other countries that are starting to use large numbers of SUVs.
The height and width of the typical SUV make it hard for car drivers behind it to see the road ahead, increasing the chance that they will be unable to avoid a crash, especially a multivehicle pileup. The stiff, trucklike underbody of an SUV does little to absorb the force of collisions with trees and other roadside objects. Its size increases traffic congestion, because car drivers tend to give sport utility vehicles a lot of room, so fewer vehicles can get through each green light at an intersection. Most of the nation's roadside guardrails were built for low-riding cars, and may flip an SUV on impact instead of deflecting it safely back into its lane of traffic. The trucklike brakes and suspensions of SUVs mean that their stopping distances are longer than for a family car, making it less likely that an SUV driver will be able to stop before hitting a car. And when SUVs do hit pedestrians, they strike them high on the body, inflicting worse injuries than cars, which have low bumpers that flip pedestrians onto the relatively soft hood.
Copyright Keith Bradsher 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Public Affairs. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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