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Sydney Morning Herald - Thursday 19 May, 2005

Wheels of misfortune
The 4WD has begun an arms race on the roads, with many family sedans increasing in size, writes

By Tony Davis
 

Crowding the streets - despite the controversy that surrounds 4WDs, there are no signs that Australia's love affair with the intimidating vehicles is fading. Photo: Nick Moir

"We only bought this," said the fortyish mother of three as she stood outside the North Shore public school and pointed to a massive, 2 tonne-plus, desert-storming 4WD with huge chrome bullbars at each end and nudge-bars along the sides, "because I'm not a very good driver."

Some may have shaken their heads in disbelief, but this otherwise intelligent and thoughtful fellow school parent was merely saying what many others leave unsaid. The 4WD is the new security blanket, and many believe that in the dog-eat-dog world that is the Sydney road system, you must have one or you're not doing the right thing by yourself or your children.

Numerous safety reports suggest those who are not good drivers are the last people who should be behind the wheel of a 4WD designed for off-road use. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are tall, ostensibly to clear rocks, which raises their centre of gravity and makes them more likely to tip over.

Many have tyres and suspension that are a compromise between the very different needs of on-road and off-road requirements, and which reduce their manoeuvrability. They are often built to withstand huge off-road stresses, which makes them heavier but not necessarily safer for those within.

And when things go wrong the combination of this height and weight makes them what safety experts describe as "extremely aggressive".

There is much documentation that suggests they are also dangerous at low speed, as the Australian Transport Safety Bureau observed in a report into the 36 children killed in "driveway deaths" between 1996 and 1998. It showed more than half the deaths were caused by large 4WDs, a significant over-representation considering the number on the roads in those years.

However, the huge amount of data compiled on the subject - and wheeled out just as quickly by 4WD devotees - also includes studies and reports that show areas where the big off-road wagon is no worse than other vehicles in terms of safety, and in some cases is superior. Certainly in any collision between two vehicles, if all else is equal the people in the bigger vehicle win.

But is that merely creating an arms race on our streets? There lies the basis of a dispute that can cause arguments in offices and schoolyards and make radio station switchboards light up.

And if you take the "mass argument" it is equally true that many 4WDs are shrinking as other vehicles are becoming larger.

The cheapest hatchbacks on the market 10 to 15 years ago weighed 800 to 900 kilograms but now are often around 1200 kilograms. The standard Ford Falcon now weighs more than 1700 kilograms and has a 4-litre engine, both dimensions eclipsing some popular four-wheel-drives.

The head of the industry research centre of NRMA Insurance, Robert McDonald, has overseen a large amount of research on 4WD visibility and says Tuesday's coronial decision has caused a lot of misinformation and "has been caught up with the issue of reversing, even though this issue didn't involve reversing".

"Our studies of reversing visibility have shown there are good and bad 4WDs, just as there are good and bad sedans. Our worst car last survey was the current model Commodore sedan."

He attributed this to the high tail, the position of the seats and the shape of the roof pillars. He says in terms of forward visibility, there wasn't a large difference from vehicle to vehicle in terms of seeing things immediately in front of the car (the full vehicle-by-vehicle charts are archived on nrma.com.au)

"The difference was in the order of half a metre from best to worst. In terms of general visibility, the placement of the A-pillar [the windscreen pillar] in some modern cars is just as important."

He cites such cars as the Honda Oydssey (a people mover) and the Toyota Prius (a hatchback) as having their view restricted by these pillars.

No reports for or against, nor fuel price increases, interest rate worries or other threats, seem to affect Australians' love for their 4WDs. This year they will buy 200,000 or more vehicles defined by the VFACTS industry statisticians as SUVs, which is to say 4WDs of various sizes. That will mean one in five new vehicles sold is a 4WD, or one in four passenger vehicles.

The Australian affair with the 4WD started in the early 1980s, helped along by enormous tariff concessions granted because the 4WD was used primarily as an agricultural vehicle. Vehicles such as the Nissan Patrol and Toyota LandCruiser became image machines, particularly among men, and as they became more luxurious and more technically sophisticated, they picked up an increasing female fan base.

As the tariff advantage was reduced (the tariff is now 5 percent, compared with 10 per cent for passenger cars) other 4WD attributes kept them popular, including the provision of seven seats. This meant people could carry a tribe without the stigma of having a "people mover". Anyone who ventures near a school will see the dramatic market penetration among mothers.

The NSW Roads Minister, Michael Costa, was quick to voice his lack of support for the call of the senior deputy State Coroner, Jacqueline Milledge, to ban 4WDs from stopping near schools, and to force their owners to qualify for special licences.

He argues for proximity sensors, the radar parking aids fitted to many luxury cars. However, he is not suggesting retrofitting these devices, and it would require national legislation - in other words a change to the Australian Design Rules - to bring in such a change.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, entered the debate yesterday, saying he wished there were fewer off-roaders in urban areas. "As a car nut, I can't understand the obsession with four-wheel-drives when they're not used," he said.

In the meantime, more than a million 4WDs (the exact figure is not available from the Bureau of Statistics) will still be out there and it would be at least five years before the majority of 4WDs were fitted with the devices.

A Toyota spokesman, Peter Griffin, says today's 4WDs are safe "and the market is telling us that". He says proximity sensors are merely part of an overall safety package. NRMA Insurance's Robert McDonald says they are very good for reverse parking, but are not a great safety benefit in terms of protecting children.

"They only work about a metre from the car, unless you are travelling extremely slowly. Your reaction time is not going to be quick enough to at least not knock someone over before even realising they are there," McDonald says. "If we are looking at a technological solution to visibility in general I think the camera is the way to go."

The case of the Japanese maker Honda shows the extent of the 4WD boom. Despite its lack of experience in the field, in the late 1990s it saw its first serious off-road model, the CR-V, quickly overtake its popular Accord and Civic, to become its best-selling model in Australia. Although the CR-V has lost that mantle, Honda has still sold nearly 3000 CR-Vs in Australia this year.

Car companies love 4WDs not only because they have allowed them to command premium prices despite not always being dearer to make (some have solid rear axles and other primitive features rarely found on passenger cars), but because the people who buy them love to open their chequebooks.

The locally made Ford Territory combines the height and brutish looks of a 4WD but is also available in 2WD. Buyers tend to opt for the 2WD version (no one need ever know) and spend the money they have saved on accessories - many of them designed to enhance the rugged 4WD look.

"Territory buyers spend about $1200 on accessories," Ford Australia's president, Tom Gorman, said this week. He said this figure dwarfed that of any other model in Ford's range.

Big, bold and no beg-your-pardons

The theme of 4WD marketers has long been superiority and indestructibility.

In the 1990s Jeeps were sold in Australia under the slogan "Give way - not". The new Toyota HiLux's catchcry is "Get in or get out of the way", while marketing materials for the "class-kicking" HiLux 4WD utility (which is aimed increasingly at the recreational market) promise "intimidating styling", an "aggressive bonnet scoop", "dominating moulded front bumpers" and a variety of other "tough" features that show it "means business".

Honda's marketing for its CR-V four-wheel-drive also stresses toughness. A TV commercial shows a rhinoceros backing away from a CR-V to the slogan: "The new Honda CR-V - more intimidating than ever."

A Toyota spokesman, Peter Griffin, says "Get in or get out of the way" is merely a slogan.

"It can be seen for what it is, which is an ad for a versatile workhorse vehicle which has an increased level of comfort and performance," he says. "And it is consistent with the continuing growth of popularity of these vehicles."

A Honda spokesman, Mark Higgins, says the "intimidating" slogan was used for one week only to highlight a special equipment package, and the emphasis on it and the word "tough" referred solely to the model's capability off-road. "Our research indicates most people like the idea of their 4WD being tough and able to handle the great outdoors."

Certainly the possibility of escape has long been identified as the reason people buy such vehicles, even though more than 90 per cent will never leave the bitumen.

- Tony Davis

Parents see school melee as problem

Amid calls from the senior deputy State Coroner to ban four-wheel-drive vehicles from stopping near primary and infants schools, the Federation of Parents and Citizens' Associations warned the "mad scramble" was a major problem.

Despite parents' concerns about road hazards and personal safety, children should still be encouraged to walk to school, a spokesman for the association, David Giblin, said.

A report by transport researcher ARRB Group found that between 1998 and 2002, 3728 child pedestrians were killed or injured in NSW, 38 per cent of them during school travel time.

The Department of Education said school principals were expected to have implemented risk-management strategies.

Middle Harbour Public School principal Wayne Bensley said he had seen a four-wheel-drive mount the footpath, pick up a child then drive into the pedestrian crossing.

© This work is copyright and is reproduced under licence from John Fairfax Holdings Limited