Buyers looking for safety are driving in the wrong lane

Can SUVs survive this high-impact critique?

Sport utility vehicles are a menace. As these off-road behemoths that never go off road replace cars, the result on American highways will be "mayhem," according to an exposé titled "High and Mighty," by Keith Bradsher.

As Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times, Bradsher set off the anti-SUV movement and here fuels it with alarming details. For starters, since the government regulates SUVs as trucks rather than cars, they're allowed to:

• get much poorer fuel economy.

• pollute more.

• have less effective brakes.

• avoid standard car-crash tests.

• omit front and rear-end structures that crush to protect their own occupants and those of cars they hit.

• ride higher off the ground and so mesh badly with cars' crash systems.

SUVs are built on stiff frames like cars and trucks 40 years ago, which make them strong enough to hold up on rocky trails and to tow trailers. But because they're so tall, SUVs roll over more easily than most cars, and their rollovers are more dangerous than other types of accidents, because they put occupants' heads closer to points of impact.

The evidence is compelling. So why are they so appealing to drive? They fit Americans' lives like nothing since the Country Squire wagons. You don't have to duck to get in and out. They're heavy enough to perform the occasional duties that self-sufficient Americans equate with freedom - such as towing an expensive boat to the lake or reaching a friend's remote cabin. Or just getting to a high-pressure job in the snow.

In the late 1970s, Congress required cars to get greater fuel mileage than the big sedans in Americans' driveways could muster. In response, buyers turned to commercial vehicles for personal use, and in so doing gave rise to the SUV.

Now technology has developed to help Texas-size cars meet fuel economy standards, and SUVs look like a nightmare that could be getting worse. More and more families who don't need the utility of an SUV are buying them just to see over traffic and not be disadvantaged in an accident. Rollover statistics never enter these buyers' calculus. Also, as a growing pool of older SUVs depreciate, more are driven by younger, less experienced, and higher-risk drivers.

"Americans tend to have less confidence in their driving skills, and assume that crashes are inevitable," Bradsher warns, "so they have gravitated instead to tanklike vehicles that [they think] will protect occupants even if they plow into another vehicle."

Bradsher devotes a particularly strange chapter to the cynical efforts of automakers to market SUVs to adults who want to "hide the children" in the back, or to feel the ability to conquer other drivers or "survive" a collapsing society in a Mad Max world. This is why so many who never go off road buy four-wheel-drive vehicles, the argument goes. But most buyers are not so cynical. And while marketers excel in amplifying trends, they don't create them.

Today, there is a faint light in the tunnel - a modern variation on SUVs called "crossover" vehicles. Unlike early SUVs with stiff truck frames that crush other cars in collisions, crossovers are based on cars and offer most modern cars' safety features. Instead of archaic four-wheel-drive systems designed for rugged off-road trails, they offer modern all-wheel-drive that excels on snow and ice. They're lighter and burn less gas.

Bradsher dismisses these crossovers, because they're not as thrifty or stable as the cars they're replacing. But other experts disagree, arguing that many traditional SUV buyers are switching to crossovers, realizing that trucky drive systems and a hard ride don't suit their needs.

Solving America's dependence on SUVs will not be easy, but Bradsher lays out a concise and fair path forward:

1. Classify SUVs and minivans as passenger cars to make them comply with car safety, pollution, and fuel economy standards.

2. Dramatically narrow the "light truck" loophole to only pickup trucks with a single row of seats in front.

3. Institute minimum rollover-resistance standards for all passenger cars which the best SUVs could pass.

4. Raise insurance rates on SUVs to reflect their actual claims cost.

5. Eliminate tax breaks for SUVs.

To that I would add, train young drivers better.

Bradsher notes that unlike Americans, "Europeans and Asians tend to associate safety with a nimble vehicle with excellent brakes that can swerve or stop quickly so as to avoid an accident," which SUVs do poorly. Attention to this engaging book could help us avoid all kinds of troubles ahead.

Eric C. Evarts is the Monitor's automotive writer.

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