As older model years of vehicles are scrapped, they are being replaced with new model years in which a much larger proportion of the vehicles are SUVs. This will eventually make SUVs nearly twice as common as they are now. Add in the shift toward less responsible drivers as SUVs become more common in the used-vehicle market and the result is a frightening threat to automotive safety and the environment in the years ahead.
So how many people is the SUV boom already needlessly killing? My best estimate is that the replacement of cars with SUVs is currently causing close to 3,000 needless deaths a year in the United States-as many people annually as died in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. Roughly 1,000 extra deaths occur each year in SUVs that roll over, compared to the expected rollover death rate if these motorists had been driving cars. About 1,000 more people die each year in cars hit by SUVs than would occur if the cars had been hit by other cars. And up to 1,000 additional people succumb each year to respiratory problems because of the extra smog caused by SUVs.
This conservative estimate excludes a lot of problems that are hard to calculate, like SUVs' harm to pedestrians, or their contribution to global warming. It also excludes the growing problems overseas, where SUV sales are also starting to rise, especially in Europe, South America and Australia.
Government intervention in the automobile market, through safety and environmental regulations issued in the 1970s-and never adequately updated since then-has made matters worse. The SUV boom is to a considerable extent the result of a series of disastrous public policy mistakes that have encouraged manufacturers to build gas-guzzling, pollution-belching, unsafe SUVs instead of safe, clean, fuel-efficient cars.
SUVs are the world's most dangerous vehicles because they represent a new model of personal transportation that is inherently less safe for road users and more harmful to the environment than cars. SUVs also threaten to displace cars because of a phenomenon known as "network externalities."
This economic concept holds that if enough people start using a certain product, everybody else will start buying the same product just for the advantages of being able to work with people who already have the product. Consumers will do this even if the product chosen is technologically inferior to the alternatives.
The best example of network externalities lies in the computer industry. Once enough people started using Microsoft DOS, and later Microsoft Windows, then practically everybody had to use it, even though Apple arguably had a much better product in its Macintoshes.
Another good example of network externalities lies in VHS video recorders. They represent a less sophisticated technology than the Beta machines with which they initially competed. But once enough people owned VHS video recorders, most movie rentals became available in a VHS format and then everybody had to buy VHS machines.
SUVs are inferior to cars in safety, pollution, comfort and driving performance. Yet their sales have benefited from network externalities. It is becoming harder and harder to see down the road while sitting in a car, because of the impossibility of seeing through the tall SUVs, minivans and pickups ahead in traffic. At night, the glare from SUV headlights is blinding for car drivers. Backing a car out of a parking place between two taller vehicles has become an exercise in hope that no one is about to come barreling by. The sheer size and menacing appearance of SUVs inevitably make car owners feel less safe. The result has been a highway arms race.
If nothing is done to check this trend, automakers will gradually make more and more people feel as though cars are obsolete. The sale of SUVs is creating strong demand for yet more SUVs, as Ford Explorers and Toyota Sequoias displace Ford Tauruses and Toyota Camrys in garage after garage. Advertising reinforces this trend. The auto industry completely dwarfs every other industry in advertising, accounting for one in every seven dollars of advertising in the United States and bankrolling the nation's media to a remarkable extent, especially the television and magazine industries. The auto industry outspends on advertising the next three largest industries combined: financial services, telecommunications (including local, long-distance and cell phone service) and national restaurant chains. A big chunk of the automakers' ad money has gone toward ads that subtly or blatantly undermine people's confidence in cars.
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