No Boundaries, Baby

High and Mighty: SUVs–The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How they Got That Way

If a first impression means anything, the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s was a telling one. To introduce this new SUV to the world, Chrysler staged a publicity stunt that required the cocksure Bob Lutz–head of the company’s light truck operations–to plow a Jeep through a plate glass window into a showroom of wined-and-dined auto journalists. The crowd squirmed with glee as the television cameras captured this rough-and-tumble vehicle for nightly news watchers throughout America.

What kind of consumer did Lutz think would be swayed by such a testosterone-fueled gambit? According to Keith Bradsher’s thorough account of the SUV’s rise to power, industry executives knew perfectly well whom they were after: “They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.” That’s not Bradsher’s cynicism speaking, by the way. It’s the industry’s own market researchers.

High and Mighty is the kind of systematic analysis of the auto industry not seen since Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. Bradsher, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, also shares Nader’s penchant for throwing rhetorical bombs. He makes it clear from the outset that he agrees with the auto makers’ assessment of their own clientele. “Some of these SUV buyers might be beautiful people,” he writes, “but many [of them] seem somewhat less attractive on the inside.” The appalling safety record of SUVs–and in particular what he calls “the carnage of rollovers”–is what really drives Bradsher. The thousands of unnecessary deaths from SUV accidents, he writes, are “a huge bill in blood to be paid for the fashion tastes of the nation’s more affluent families.”

Despite the occasional muckraking vituperation, High and Mighty is by no means a cranky screed. It’s a well-researched investigation into the SUV’s origin, development, and future. Bradsher compiles a mountain of evidence to paint a convincing picture of an industry that has knowingly maximized profit by minimizing safety. Even more disturbing, he shows how the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) have compromised safety while suggesting with a Machiavellian grin that SUVs are in fact safer than cars. Like recent exposés of the tobacco and meatpacking industries, Bradsher’s book should have long-term implications for an industry central to the American way of life.

One out of every two vehicles purchased in America today is classified as a light truck–an SUV, pickup truck, or minivan. The SUV, which is nothing more than a pickup truck hastily adorned with an extra row or two of seats, is the most popular of the lot. According to statistics that the Big Three never officially dispute, they’re also the most dangerous–far more dangerous than cars. The occupant death rate in crashes per million SUVs on the road is six percent higher than the death rate per million cars. For extra-large SUVs (including the Expedition, Navigator, Suburban, and Excursion), the difference jumps to eight percent.

The reason is fairly simple: SUVs are much more likely to roll over, a frequently fatal mishap that accounts for 1,000 unnecessary vehicular deaths per year. Two aspects of the SUV’s design make rollovers more likely. First, relative to a car SUVs are very top-heavy, with a high ratio of height to wheelbase. The second cause is less obvious. An SUV’s high bumper predisposes it to grab the pillars holding up guardrails. This happens with pickups, too, but an SUV’s top-heaviness makes it more likely than a pickup to climb up and over the rail rather than bouncing back into the road. It’s not a freak accident. Federal data show that “of the 36,161 vehicle occupants who died in crashes in 2000 . . . almost 6 percent perished in crashes that began with an impact with a guardrail.” SUVs had a 20 percent higher chance of being in such a crash than other cars.

Of course, SUVs are not just dangerous to their owners. When they collide with another vehicle, SUVs–due to their weight and design–are three times more likely than cars to kill other drivers, according to federal statistics. Another thousand deaths a year could be avoided if these types of unequal collisions did not occur. Such figures only scratch the surface of a heap of evidence collected by Bradsher, all pointing to an obvious conclusion: Anyone who buys an SUV today for safety purposes is making a foolish decision.

Such poor judgement is partially attributable to the fact that SUV buyers are naïve enough to be duped by commercials that exploit irrational fears. SUV ads shamelessly manipulate customers’ overblown fears of crime and violence by portraying the world as a dangerous place. Watching these ads, it’s as if we all suffered from acute agoraphobia and needed psychic healing through vehicular therapy. Lexus: “Introducing the V8 LX 470. Now with added intimidation.” Isuzu: “The world is big and cars just aren’t.” This Madison Avenue drivel–as mindless as it is effective–has become the poetry of profit for the Big Three, as they maliciously promote the myth of consumer safety.

The more obvious goal of SUV advertising is to tweak a juvenile longing for unachievable adventure. With their four-wheel drives, SUVs aggressively pose as off-road vehicles that respect, as Chevy puts it, “no boundaries.” Commercials depict SUVs clamoring up boulders and trailblazing the virgin wilderness. Never, though, do we see these tanks gently swerving along those languorous California coastal highways–á la the luxury sedan. And for good reason. Such sexy s-curving is actually the last thing executives want to encourage drivers of their top-heavy behemoths to attempt.

Like all advertising, the point is not to inform but to manipulate. As J.C. Collins, Ford’s top marketing manager freely admits, “SUVs are about image, it’s about who the customer is and who that customer wants to be.” He continues, “The only time those SUVs are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3 a.m.” A wealthy participant in a Los Angeles focus group offered another telling admission. She needed her LX 470, she explained, “to drive up over the curb and onto lawns to park at large parties in Beverly Hills.” No boundaries, baby.

Of course, every American to some extent consumes to shape an image of himself. But the choice to drive an SUV is an exercise in self-esteem building that not only compromises driver safety, but also chokes the air with smog-inducing levels of carbon dioxide. Pressure from labor unions, the political influence of Midwestern swing states, and the Big Three’s deep-pocketed lobbying budgets have collectively ensured that SUVs remain exempt from the more stringent emission (and safety) standards applied to cars. Federal regulators thus classify new SUVs as light trucks, implying that they are not recreational vehicles. The designation means they must get an average of a mere 20.7 m.p.g. The cars that a company manufactures, by contrast, must adhere to a 27.5 m.p.g. benchmark. This difference means that SUVs emit up to 5.5 times the amount of smog-causing gases as cars.

So, in case you miss the point: the vehicle that emits the most pollution (and that is generally driven by a lone yuppie on the way to a tee time) enjoys a loophole that keeps the cost of its production down while the vehicle driven by an environmentally responsible consumer (stuffed with a family of four on the way to an Earth First! rally) bears the financial burden of higher fuel standards. If you buy a car, in short, you’re subsidizing the SUV that’s blocking your view, clogging your air, shining its offensively high headlights into your back window, supporting golf course run-off, making you feel small and inadequate, driving your commander-in-chief into a war with Iraq, and raising the cost of toilet paper. (Just kidding about that last one.)

Of course, most of these SUVs can’t even meet the 20.7 m.p.g. standard. With so many Americans who never go off-road buying gas-guzzling beasts designed to scale walls, how do the Big Three meet the benchmark for their light truck fleets? The answer will shock even the most seasoned cynic. Take Ford. Under the guise of environmental responsibility, Ford built a quarter of a million alternative fuel pickups that ran on a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. It hardly mattered to Ford executives that sufficient infrastructure for shipping ethanol did not yet exist, or that ethanol costs more than gas, or that ethanol sales would scuttle the financing of road budgets (which are based on gas taxes). All that mattered to Ford is that, due to yet another loophole in federal fuel-economy standards carved out by the corn lobby and the auto lobby, it could legally use these environmentally pristine vehicles to boost their fleet’s average m.p.g. way beyond the real impact of the duel-fuel technology. Only a fraction of Ford Rangers have the new engines, but according to the regulation, the mere fact that Ford makes the duel-fuel model at all automatically means that any Ford Ranger that got the normal 20.7 m.p.g. in the lab can be counted as getting the duel-fuel mileage (44 m.p.g.) on the road–even if it lacks a duel fuel engine! (Please note: I NEVER use exclamation points.) “Once more,” Bradsher writes of this preposterous stipulation, “the world had been made safe for big SUVs.”

For all its brilliance, Bradsher’s investigation fails to grapple with one underlying conceptual problem. Bradsher is obviously indignant about the safety problems that SUVs suffer. But how does one actually decide what’s “safe”? Cars and trucks, at least as we know them, are inherently deadly and dirty machines. Theoretically, however, the technology exists to design vehicles that are nearly death-proof and pollution free. The speed limit could be dropped to 40 m.p.h.; vehicles could be produced that never exceeded 50 m.p.h.; we could all drive cars that were buffered as securely as police cars; we could all drive fuel-efficient hybrids that get 100 m.p.g. Bradsher never argues for complete safety or zero emissions. Which raises a thorny, slippery slope-is kind of question: Where should federal regulators and lawmakers draw the line? Safety is and always has been a calculation between rigid regulation and laissez-faire freedom. GM’s director of advanced technology notes, “Even if you’re driving a tank down the road, you could always get hit by a locomotive.” Bradsher tosses aside this quotation as an example of corporate evasion and smugness. He would have done better to recognize that the guy just might have a point, and then proved him wrong.

In the end, though, Bradsher’s arguments are stronger, better articulated, more nuanced, and more convincing than the industry’s obfuscations. Which is a good thing, given that the environmentalists, by their own admission, have–wrong metaphor–missed the boat. “We were stupid,” admits the Sierra Club’s president. “We didn’t know where the auto industry was going and we didn’t have the contacts in the auto industry to tell us.” Fortunately, especially for those who insist on purchasing these irresponsible and obnoxious machines, the same cannot be said for Keith Bradsher.

James McWilliams is a writer in Austin, where he can often be seen riding a bike.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST