Wheels within wheels

The Sun-Herald

Sunday 22 September 2002

Vain, insecure, a menace to society if you own a 4WD, is this you? Bob Jennings reports on a new book.

COMMENTATORS in the US are comparing a new book that is highly critical of four-wheel drives, big utes and their owners with Ralph Nader's landmark 1965 publication, Unsafe At Any Speed.

High And Mighty: SUVs, The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles And How They Got That Way already has four-wheel-drive manufacturers, buyers and even government departments squirming or reaching for their lawyers and spin doctors.

Written by The New York Times correspondent Keith Bradsher, it targets the four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle (SUV) phenomenon that he claims is killing thousands of people and wrecking the environment.

Detroit Free Press columnist Tom Walsh wrote: ``Do you drive an SUV? If so, don't read the next quote with food in your mouth. Here's what Bradsher writes about SUV buyers: `They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centred and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbours or communities'."

Walsh said Bradsher's favourite word to describe SUVs is ``menacing", which he uses nine times in one five-page passage discussing the alleged kill-or-be-killed psychology of SUVdrivers.

Bradsher was Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times from 1996 to 2001 and now runs the paper's Hong Kong bureau.

In an interview with Walsh, Bradsher predicted that deaths and injuries would multiply as older-model used SUVs were purchased and driven by teenagers.

The introduction to Bradsher's book claims that the big vehicles ``roll over too easily, killing and injuring occupants at an alarming rate, and are dangerous to other road users, inflicting catastrophic damage to cars that they hit and posing a lethal threat to pedestrians".

In response, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group, has hired Strat@comm, the nation's largest automotive public affairs/public relations firm, to gather information to contest the crash data, fuel economy and other claims.

Walsh says Bradsher faces a daunting task to convince the American public that its big recreational vehicles are a huge menace, when the overall rate of road deaths has dropped by 50 per cent since the mid-1980s, at a time when sales of SUVs increased by 600pc.

However, at the same time as the book is hitting the streets comes another shot at the big recreational vehicle market, this time from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which claims that while pick-up trucks accounted for just 20pc of US vehicle sales, six of the 10 biggest ``gas guzzlers" were pick-ups.

The study looked at the 50 most popular pick-up trucks and cars, and found Dodge Ram owners paid the most for fuel, with an average petrol bill of $US1,468 ($2,682) a year.

Based on an average distance of about 24,000km a year, it claims the Honda Accord, the most popular passenger car in the US, costs $847 a year.