OPINION - Crackdown urged on roadway scourge

The Newcastle Herald

Wednesday 4 February 2004

PAUL Keating once said: “The advent of the large four-wheel-drives for urban transport has become a pox ... of significant proportions."

He added: “For what it's worth and I stress for what it's worth if I had my way, I'd tax them off the roads and feel good about it."

The four-wheel-drive, which is responsible for so much carnage on our roads is the large, high ground clearance, over two-tonne truck which has been dressed up to look like a passenger vehicle.

These include the Nissan Patrol, Toyota Land Cruiser and Pajero, Mercedes ML series and BMW X5.

These vehicles are up to 22 times more likely to kill the occupants of a small- to medium-sized vehicle in a side impact collision. They are two to three times more likely to roll over. They guzzle petrol, they pollute, they take 10 metres further to stop at 60kmh, they obscure the vision of other drivers and they take up far more than their fair share of parking space.

There are some green slip insurers who cynically joke that four-wheel-drives actually lower their costs in road crashes. This is because they are far more likely to kill, not maim their victims and deaths are far cheaper than injuries.

Politicians are partly to blame for their popularity. When they first started appearing on the scene they were classed as farm vehicles and given a special tariff.

Today, a four-wheel-drive enters the country at a 5per cent tariff, whereas the far safer passenger vehicles attract a 15per cent tariff.

In effect, our politicians are encouraging and subsiding trauma at the front end, only to pick up the bills for health care, social security and all the other costs which contribute to Australia's $18billion per annum road trauma account.

The recent rollover of a large four-wheel-drive at Tarcutta, which killed four members of one family, is not unique. It happens with monotonous regularity.

Drivers who feel relatively safe in an urban environment venture onto the highways not realising that these behemoths will flip with the greatest of ease and without warning.

Although they are designed and marketed as passenger vehicles, they are not required to meet all the safety regulations which apply to ordinary passenger vehicles.

There is some hope on the horizon. In the US, the birthplace of the four-wheel-drive (SUV Sports Utility Vehicle or UAV Urban Assault Vehicle as many prefer to call them), the government has only last month forced four-wheel-drive manufacturers to agree to redesign these vehicles to make them safer for other road users by 2010.
The changes which will reduce the front end height of four-wheel-drives and pick-up trucks are estimated to cost the industry $US5billion ($6.7billion) and reduce the death rate for accidents involving four-wheel-drives by 28per cent.

These mandatory design changes are an undeniable admission by the authorities and the industry about the dangers of four-wheel-drives.

They are the genuine Weapons of Mass Destruction and the only ones President Bush's administration has been able to find so far.

There is much our governments could do to immediately and significantly reduce the trauma caused by these UAVs:

  • Legislate so that the tariff for all four-wheel-drives is at least 15per cent then allow genuine primary producers whose principle place of residence is in the bush to get the 10per cent rebate.

  • Require a special licence for all four-wheel-drives over two tonnes.

  • Require all four-wheel-drives meet the same safety standards as ordinary passenger vehicles.

  • Introduce special “environment" taxes for vehicles which petrol guzzle and pollute.

  • Dramatically increase CTP insurance premiums to cover the costs of carnage created by these vehicles and commensurately increase motor vehicle insurances to cover the additional costs of property damage.

  • Increase registration charges to cover additional road damage.

  • Require the incorporation of the US Government's fish-hook manoeuvre (a bi-directional stability swerve test) to apply as a design standard to all vehicles.

Harold Scruby is chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia