Deadly beasts of the burbs strike again

The Sun-Herald

Sunday 11 May 2003

The Sun-Herald Sunday 11 May 2003

Deadly beasts of the burbs strike again


CARNAGE: The Manly Vale smash Illustrated the vulnerability of occupants of smaller cars - Picture: PETER MORRIS

THE terrible accident in Manly Vale last Friday week, in which a family of three was killed, clearly was not the fault of the driver of the four-wheel-drive involved at the end of the six-car pile-up.

But the fact that Cameron and Shannon Howie and their 15-month-old baby Michaela were in a 1400 kilogram Mitsubishi Lancer shunted into the path of a 3000 kilogram Nissan Patrol sealed their fate.

As always, it was the occupants of the smaller car who took the brunt of the collision with the 4WD. It stands to reason that a rigid, high-riding 4WD hitting a conventional car at head height, above side-impact beams and other safety measures, will inflict lethal damage on the occupants of the smaller vehicle, while leaving its own occupants relatively unscathed.

In fact, a US study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that passengers in a car are four times more likely to be killed when hit by a heavy-duty 4WD than by another car.

And a study last year by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau found that 4WDs are nine times more likely to kill other road users than to kill their own driver. Further, while the overall number of fatal crashes dropped by 5 per cent between 1990 and 1998, the number involving 4WDs jumped by 85 percent, to one in eight road deaths.

More ammunition for the anti-4WD lobby came last week from NSW Environment Minister Bob Debus, who unveiled the Government's new eco-friendly car rating system Vehicles were measured on greenhouse impact and noxious pollution emissions and given a rating between A and D No prizes for guessing which popular family vehicles were in the dreaded environmental pariah category D: Land Rover Discovery, Mitsubishi Pajero, Nissan Patrol and Toyota LandCruiser, among other 4WDs.

In a way, it is unfair to blame the owners for the proliferation of suburban assault vehicles. It is not that 4WD owners are ignorant or selfish. It is that there is very little choice, especially for families, in a market in which manufacturers increasingly focus their design energies, and marketing and research dollars, on 4WDs. Moreover, 4WDs are better value than conventional cars, thanks to a generous government subsidy, a relic of the days when 4WDs were farm workhorses. Instead of paying the usual 15 per cent tariff, 4WD-owners pay just 5 per cent. For safety-conscious families who want room for bikes and surfboards and extra children, 4WDs are hard to resist.

The good news is that sales of truck-like 4WDs have levelled off in Australia, with growth in the lighter "soft-roaders", some of which are built on a car chassis and tend to be more forgiving in crashes.

Harold Scruby, the one-man show at the Pedestrian Council of NSW, says he has suggested to federal ministers one way of reducing the popularity of 4WDs is by raising the tariff to 15 percent, with primary producers eligible for a rebate. But he believes there is resistance from the car industry.

Scruby, Roads Minister Carl Scully and their mates in local government are already putting the squeeze on motorists, forcing down speed limits in some areas to 40 kmh and going mad with speed cameras, which add a hefty $100 million a year to state revenue.

More than ever motorists need to maintain a virtuous profile. Lethal, gas-guzzling
4WDs only give them a bad name and concede the moral high ground to the anti-car zealots.