Take them off road - forever

Sydney Morning Herald Thursday 1 August 2002

Take them off road - forever

Miranda Devine - How many tragedies will it take before there are restrictions on driving 4WDs?

Bethany Holder was only five years old when, on Wednesday last week, the second day of her third term in kindy, she was hit outside her Collaroy school by a Nissan Patrol four-wheel-drive with bullbar.

Her death, in front of her father and 11-year-old sister, is being investigated by the Dee Why police accident investigation unit. But it is unlikely charges will be laid against the 28-year-old driver of the 4WD, the mother of another student, who had turned into the driveway of Pittwater House school and has told police she didn't see Bethany, walking along the footpath behind her big sister.

There is one question that will haunt everyone involved: if the woman had been driving a car more suitable for suburban roads, would she have seen Bethany?

Whatever the answer, the fact is that the larger, heavier and higher the vehicle, the more damage is done in an impact with a pedestrian, or a smaller car, for that matter.

This is commonsense, and for at least four years the peculiar dangers of suburban 4WDs, especially with bullbars, have been fully documented. Yet safety authorities and insurance companies remain reluctant to do much at all to stem the wave of two-tonne beasts overtaking our roads.

We know that 4WDs are too big, too heavy, too high, too aggressive, too greedy, too dirty, and cause too much damage to other cars and pedestrians. We know most of their drivers are selfish fashion victims who rarely, if ever, take the vehicle off-road.

We have known since 1998 that passengers in a normal car are four times more likely to be killed when hit by a 4WD than by another car.

You are nearly eight times more likely to be killed if you are a passenger in a car hit in the side by a 4WD, according to the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

And if you are in a small hatchback, you are nine times more likely to be killed if hit by a 4WD, says a report this year by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. That's a statistic well remembered by the family of 20-year-old student Lucy Singleton, killed when her 900kg Daihatsu Charade was hit head-on by a two-tonne Toyota 4WD with bullbars which had crossed to the wrong side of Spit Road, Mosman, in 1999.

We know that the average Pajero or Range Rover is twice as heavy as the average car, that 4WDs ride higher off the ground so their bumpers miss side-impact beams and other safety devices when they hit a car. We know that when a 4WD hits a smaller vehicle, the force of the impact is aimed directly at the heads of the car occupants. So what could have been a relatively minor collision winds up as a fatal accident.

We know that in Australia fatalities involving 4WDs jumped 85 per cent between 1990 and 1998, according to the transport safety bureau.

We know large 4WDs were responsible for more than half of fatal driveway accidents, mostly of children aged two and under, caused by passenger vehicles between 1996 and 1998, according to a May report by the safety bureau.

We know that a LandCruiser or Pajero guzzles 50 per cent more fuel than a Commodore or Falcon, according to the Australian Automobile Association.

What more do we need to know before 4WDs are recognised as killing machines and taxed or hounded out of popularity, before drivers are required to sit competence tests and hold truck licences before they can get behind the wheel of a 4WD?

The NSW Government this week at least announced it was considering measures aimed at improving 4WD altruism, such as beeping reversing alarms, better mirrors and smaller bullbars. Last year, a green tinge was added to stamp duty so gas-guzzlers like 4WDs cost more.

But the harrowing experience of the Pedestrian Council chairman, Harold Scruby, over the past three years trying to make bullbars safer shows how hard it is to reform the 4WD habit. He claims his attempts at bullbar reform have been thwarted by Country Labor politicians. "It's all about marginal seats and keeping people in the bush happy," he said yesterday.

Dodgy politics also keeps a generous taxpayer subsidy on 4WDs. The Federal Government slugs regular cars an import tariff of 15 per cent, while 4WDs, all imported, are taxed just 5 per cent, a hangover from the days when they used to be rural workhorses and not upwardly mobile fashion statements. On a $52,000 Toyota LandCruiser, the subsidy amounts to a $5000 discount. In fact, the savings are so good that Subaru even reportedly raised the suspension of its imported Forester wagon so it could qualify as a 4WD.

So car owners subsidise the so-called Suburban Assault Vehicles which endanger their lives, hog the roads, make driving a war and leave no room in the car parks. Car owners also subsidise 4WDs with their insurance premiums because of the unusually expensive claims which result from the damage and injuries caused by the giant beasts during accidents.

In the United States, some insurers have increased liability rates up to 20 per cent on 4WDs and there has been talk of car owners getting a premium cut of 10 per cent.

In Australia, while the NRMA claimed three years ago to be monitoring claims costs for 4WDs, and was considering its response, a spokeswoman said yesterday she saw no reason to alter premiums. "I don't see why 4WDs would be any different."

Reluctance to sanction or criticise 4WD users is shared by politicians, insurers and even accident researchers. Three years ago an NRMA safety expert told me he dare not alienate 4WD owners who were a growing proportion of the membership. Another NRMA spokesperson spoke fearfully of the "backlash from customers".

A Victorian accident expert, who had previously been scathing about 4WDs and the dangers they pose, yesterday refused to say anything negative or "inflammatory". "I learnt my lesson last time," she said.

So we have to rely on good old Harold Scruby to keep up the fight. He has been bombarded with hate email from 4WD owners, he says. But one good sign that his campaign is working is the phone call he received yesterday from an irate Hornsby 4WD dealer: "Why are you trying to drive me out of business?" the man yelled.

If only.