OPINION - No favours for dangerous 4WDs

Sydney Morning Herald Thursday 1 August 2002

The car and the person. The vehicle as a projection of self. In the interminable popular analysis of what makes people prefer the cars they do, nothing stirs contention more than the rise of the urban four-wheel-drive vehicles. Loved and defended by their owners, the Balmain bulldozers and Toorak tractors are derided by as many others.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has charted the rise of the 4WD in Australia and its increasing place in ' road accident statistics. The number of fatal crashes involving 4WDs rose 85 per cent between 1990 and 1998 - nine years in which the overall number of fatal crashes fell by 25 per cent. The bureau carefully notes that "this increase in fatal 4WD crashes is likely to be due to the growing number of kilometres travelled by 4WDs, rather than any decrease in the safety of 4WDs". The bureau says its tables show that "taking into account the level of activity, 4WDs had a lower involvement in fatal crashes than motorcycles and heavy trucks". But that does not put 4WDs in the dear. Significantly, the bureau also says: "However, passenger cars and light trucks had slightly lower' fatal crash involvement rates than 4WDs."

This comparison with passenger cars, adverse to 4WDs, raises a serious question. If 4WDs are more dangerous - even slightly more dangerous - than the general range of passenger cars, why does the Federal Government, through lower import duties, make them cheaper than their standard rivals? At present 4WDs - all of which are imported - are levied duty at 5 per cent, compared with other imports under: the $55,000 threshold at 15 per cent. A differential rate, when first applied in 1975, was initially justified on the ground that 4WDs were farm vehicles. That is a ludicrous proposition now. (Just how ludicrous is seen with the example of the Subaru Forester wagon, whose makers raised its suspension to bring it within the definition of a 4WD, and so entitled to lower import duty than if it were classified as a station wagon.)

The NSW Minister for Transport, Carl Scully, says he will raise with his interstate counterparts the issue of bullbars on 4WDs, which many regard as dangerous. That is another question. If the evidence warrants, owners should be required to modify their vehicles. Meanwhile, the differential in import duty favouring 4WDs -which was always anomalous - should plainly be removed.