4WDs and a girl who didn't have a chance

The Daily Telegraph

2 December 1999

by Miranda Devine

As she drove her Daihatsu Charade down Spit Rd towards her Harbord home two weeks ago, 20-year-old student Lucy Singleton was like any of us who drive cars in Sydney: a sitting duck for the suburban killing machines known as four-wheel drives.

At 4.30 on that sunny Saturday afternoon as she headed home for the last time, Lucy's 900 kg car was hit head-on by a two-tonne Toyota Land Cruiser 4WD with bullbars, which had crossed the median strip.

The 17-year-old P-plate driver of the 4WD walked away with minor injuries. Lucy Singleton was killed. As you can see in this photo from the Mosman Daily, her neat little navy blue car was mangled and torn from the front bumper right through to the rear wheels. The front wind-screen was split open and the bonnet scrunched underneath as If with a giant can opener.

The 4WD, on the other hand, merely had a crumpled driver's side corner where the bonnet had buckled and the bulibars were bent. No charges have been laid since the accident. But simple physics tells you that when a big heavy object meets a smaller object, It's the small one that will absorb most Impact.

In fact, a US study last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway safety found that pass-engers In a car are four times more likely to be killed when hit by a sports utility vehicle (what Americans call 4WDs), rather than another car. And you are nearly eight times more likely to be killed If you are a passenger in a car hit In the side by what has been dubbed a Suburban As-sault Vehicle.

It's not just the fact 4WDs are heavier than the average car, It's that they ride higher off the ground so their bumpers miss side-impact beams and other safety measures when they hit a car. Their stiffer frames provide a double whammy: by not ab-sorbing as much energy during a crash, they transfer most of the impact to the smaller car.

They direct massive forces ex-actly at head level, turning what might have been a relatively trivial collision between two cars into a fatal accident. Add a giant aluminium builbar to the equation and the impact is even worse.

Harold Scruby, the energetic chairman of the Pedestrian Council of NSW, says: "You should have special llcences to drive these things." He also has increased his campaign against bullbars since Lucy Singleton's death, culminating in a presentation yesterday to the Road Safety Advisory Council.

"One of the greatest advances inroad safety in the last 30 years has been the crumple zone which absorbs the impact into the front-end so people in the cabin are safer," he says.

"If you put a rigid bullbar on a rigid chassis all that technology is negated."

In the city, bullbars are just a fashion item, most common on the lower north shore, he says. Their only purpose is to protect bumper bars from parking bumps, according to NRMA ve-hicle safety and environment manager Jack Haley. It doesn't get much more ridiculous than that. Even without builbars, it ap-pears Lucy Singieton was still in mortal danger.

Constable Amber Harris, of the Lane Cove Crash Investigation unit, was on leave yesterday, but Senior Con-stable Peter West, of Wetherill Park, who also attended the accident said: "Given, the force of the impact It is fairly likely It would have resulted in the same outcome."

But because the 4WD was more than twice the size of Lucy's Charade, the force of the impact was unequally shared between the two vehicles.

Two years ago insurers in the United States recognised such inequities and increased liability rates up to 20 per cent on American 4WDs because the giant beasts had been incurring unusually expensive claims to cover damage and injuries they inflict during accidents.

In Australia, the NRMA is monitoring claims costs for 4WDs, says Robert McDonald, industry research manager.

"We have observed that other party claims costs are higher for 4WDs. . . [because] they are quite dangerous [and] proportionally they do more damage.

"If claims increase, insurers respond."

It would be nice to think 4WD owners could at last be penalised. At present, thanks to the lower import duty paid on 4WDs, regular car owners are, in fact, subsidising the very cars which endanger their lives.

That's something to think about if you drive past the bouquets of flowers which still lie by the side of Spit Rd where Lucy Singleton was killed.