The killing truth about those dreadful vans

The Weekend Australian Financial Review

Saturday 13 December 2003

Other countries are moving to make 4WD vehicles safer for other road users. So why aren't we?


Story Michael Cave

Size and brute mass - the 4WD can be a killer.
In the United States, there are two groups: 4WD owners and the rest. From the highways to the suburban back streets, the bitumen is becoming the battlefield for a vehicular arms race.

Though regarded by some as dangerous, gas-guzzling, ozone-depleting tanks. many Americans - and Australians - assert their prerogative to drive 4WDs as an inalienable birthright. But the evidence is now in: the statistics prove 4WDs are a serious hazard on the road to those who don't drive them.

And last week the US manufacturers of 4WDs (or SUVs - sports utility vehicles - as they are known there) were forced to agree to redesign these popular vehicles to make them safer to other road users by 2010.

The changes come less than a month after the European Union legislated to make all cars more pedestrian friendly by 2005, with new shock absorbing panels and bumpers to reduce injury to anyone struck by a vehicle.

The US design changes - reducing the front-end height of 4WDs and pick-up trucks - are estimated to cost the industry $US5 billion ($6.7 billion) and reduce the death rate for accidents involving 4WDs by 28 per cent.

It's a big step down by the car manufacturers who, as recently as January, had released a statement claiming "SUVs are among the safest vehicles on the road and have contributed to the substantial 4WDs by 28 per cent.

It's a big step down by the car manufacturers who, as recently as January, had released a statement claiming, "SUVs are among the safest vehicles on the road and have contributed to the substantial decline in the nation's [road] fatality rate".

But car manufacturers in Australia run a mile when asked whether similar changes would be incorporated into the design of 4WD vehicles in this country.

Ford and Holden refused to comment on the issue when contacted repeatedly this week by The Weekend AFR.

"These design changes amount to an admission about the danger 4WD vehicles pose on the road," says Harold Scruby, chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia. "These 4WDs are trucks dressed up as passenger vehicles. We call them weapons of mass destruction - they are the only ones Bush has been able to find so far."

US research indicates that in a crash with a 4WD, occupants of a car are seven times more likely to be killed than the 4WD occupants, and 26 times more likely to be killed when the 4WD strikes the other vehicle side-on.

The danger 4WD vehicles pose for standard passenger sedans comes from the fact they weigh two to three times the weight of most other cars, have few built-in "crumple zones" and because they are taller. During an impact with a smaller car, that extra height means the 4WD is likely to penetrate the smaller car's cabin space, often resulting in serious head or chest injuries or death.

Four-wheel drive vehicles are the fastest growing sector of the motor market in Australia. with sales up 213 per cent over the past decade, and now representing nearly 25 per cent of all vehicle sales. Combined with the rapid growth in small-vehicle sales at the expense of medium sized vehicles, we can expect to see more collisions between "incompatible" vehicles.

"Four-wheel drives are consistently the worst class of vehicle in terms of causing serious injuries to occupants of other vehicles," says Stuart Newstead, senior research fellow at the Monash University Accident Research Centre.

"They are twice as likely to cause death or serious injury to people they collide with and - contrary to public belief - they are not providing any greater protection to the people inside."

Newstead says that MUARC research shows that 4WD vehicles are the most "aggressive" on the road - a term indicating their ability to injure occupants of other vehicles.

He says that to overcome this issue, design changes need to be made to the vehicle class.

“We see vehicle compatibility and aggressiveness as emerging issues that are going to become more severe over time," says Michael Case, chief engineer for the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria. "Because of the rapid increase in sales for both small vehicles and 4WDs, it is logical that they are going to crash more often, leading to increased injuries from incompatibility."

Case says the RACV has made calls on Australian vehicle manufacturers asking them to make voluntary improvements to 4WD design to make them more compatible with other vehicles. So far there has been no response. David Healy, general manager for road safety at the Transport Accident Commission, says there is no question large 4WDs represent a greater risk on the road than most other vehicles of similar or less weight.

He says the design changes in the US reflect the growing understanding in that country that people need to be aware of vehicle safety for other road users as well as for the occupants of their own car.

Healy says that while Australian manufacturers are increasingly understanding of the marketability of safety in their products, "I suspect the government has a role to play in providing guidance to the industry when it comes to the safety of people in other vehicles".

TAC research in Victoria has shown that in the last 12 months the consideration of vehicle safety has risen from fifth to second most important - after price - in the checklist for people thinking about buying a car.

"I don't think there is any question these design changes would be welcome in this
country." Healy says. “And over the next decade there is no doubt that vehicle safety is going to play a significant role in reducing trauma on Australian roads."

Improvements to the safety of vehicles on Australian roads have been significant over the past 30 years: the "crashworthiness" (that is, safety in crashes) of our cars have doubled in that time, according to Brian Fildes, professor of road safety at the Monash University Accident Research Centre. This shows manufacturers are behaving in a responsible way, he says.

In the past Fildes has looked at steps that could contribute to improving the safety of 4WDs on Australia’s roads, such as calling on the government to look at differential pricing of insurance for 4WD vehicles. It seems logical, he says, that if these vehicles are causing twice as much harm on the roads, they should be paying twice as much insurance. "I would certainly hope Australian manufacturers would adopt the same [4WD design] initiatives that they are addressing overseas," Fildes says.