City streets under threat from Balmain bulldozers

Sydney Morning Herald

Tuesday 30 July 2002
Tax breaks made 4WDs attractive, but their aggressive nature makes them ugly road companions, writes Tony Davis.

Perhaps it's time for another government buyback of dangerous weapons, because again there are hundreds of thousands of potentially lethal devices in the hands of people who have no good reason to own them.

We're talking four-wheel-drive vehicles, a type of vehicle which captured 116,000 Australian buyers last year - and more than 70,000 this year.

By most industry estimates just 10 per cent of these vehicles are used off-road, but the Federal Government is still choosing to pump prime the boom.

Vehicles classified as off-road 4WDs - which are all imported - attract an import duty of just 5 per cent, compared with 15 per cent for conventional passenger cars. This started as an attempt to pork-barrel the bush, but has become a suburban bonanza. NSW urban cowboys now buy 4WDs at twice the rate of their country cousins, seemingly happy to put up with disadvantages and dangers for image reasons, to get more metal for their money (thanks to the tax break) or, erroneously, because they believe they will be safer.

How clever is a country which gives a price advantage to a vehicle which is: (a) not made in this country; (b) tops all gas-guzzler shame lists; (c) weighs up to three tonnes and damages roads, kerbs and roundabouts as a result; (d) is extremely aggressive in a collision; (e) is more likely to have a collision because of its higher centre of gravity and compromise tyres and suspension; (f) affords poor vision of children and cyclists, and (g) is driven by a person who has bought it in spite of b, c, d, e, and f?

The former Opposition leader, Kim Beazley, floated the idea of raising the tax on 4WDs during the 1998 election and copped copious flak from urbanites who think they have a God-given right to a "primary producer" discount on a vehicle with two-tone metallic paint and leather trim.

It's not all bad news. There is a new breed of lighter 4WD vehicle with fewer "on-road" disadvantages than the traditional LandCruiser or Range Rover.

The best examples, such as Subaru's Forester, are almost like conventional cars. But that makes them less suitable for serious agricultural use - but they still get the tax break.

Meanwhile, anyone who has driven a big and heavy "old school" off-roader will know it's not exactly a precision instrument.

It may give more protection when ramming a small hatch (bad luck for the other driver who is nine times more likely to be killed, according to a recent Australian Transport Safety Bureau report).

But occupants of a heavy 4WD can be worse off under many other circumstances - the same ATSB study of fatal crashes, for example, showed a "significantly higher" proportion of 4WDs roll over.

And have you noticed that the chances of a 4WD being fitted with a huge and threatening bullbar are in almost inverse proportion to the likelihood of that 4WD ever seeing an unsealed road? What's the aim? A vehicular arms race in which we all buy bigger and bigger machines until we've achieved mutually assured destruction?

People who regularly tow great weights or drive through thick mud may require a big 4WD. But why can't those who need a family wagon or people-mover buy a responsible choice on the same favourable tax regime? Unless something is done about this inequity, our city roads will be filled with more and more reasons to be afraid.