Monsters of the road

The Age

Tuesday 13 July 2004

By: Gabriella Coslovich


Paris is trying to ban four-wheel-drives. As sales of the cars soar in Australia, Gabriella Coslovich asks whether they deserve their fearsome reputation for safety and waste.

There's a growing divide on Australian roads and it's encapsulated by three letters SUV. They stand for something Australians used to call a four-wheel-drive and are now encouraged to call a sports utility vehicle, yet another tag inherited from the United States.


In the past few years, Australians have embraced the vehicle, if not quite the acronym, with a vengeance, seduced by shrewd car-makers selling the ubiquitous promise of "lifestyle".


Australians are eager to buy into the fantasy. Figures released last week show that the market for SUVs is growing at double the rate of car sales in general. Last year, Australians bought 85,545 new SUVs that's 10,346 more than they did in 2003, a rise of 13.8 per cent.


But while Australians' love affair with sports utility vehicles thrives, there is a growing counter movement that denounces them as gas-guzzling, dangerous nuisances that have no place on city roads.


To those who love them, SUVs are spacious status-symbols, metal fortresses, badges of virility and tickets to outback adventure.


To those who loathe them they are nothing more than trumped up kidcarriers, road-hogging camouflage vehicles for tied-down dads who would rather be single studs, and monied mums who would rather be Carrie Bradshaw."


The vast majority just hate them, they think 'what a selfish thing to be buying. You gas-guzzle, you block everyone's sight, you have more likelihood of killing someone in an accident with a normal car, and you are more likely to roll over and kill someone'," says Harold Scruby, chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia.


A litany of names have sprung up to describe SUVs: from the hackneyed Toorak tractor to urban assault vehicles, or even SSCs Sad Suburban C---s to use the phrase coined by Scottish author Christopher Brookmyer in his anarchic book A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away. Former prime minister Paul Keating called them "a pox ... of significant proportions" and vowed that if he had his way he'd "tax them off the roads".


The French are hoping to do just that.


Last month, English newspaper The Guardian reported that, under a proposed radical green road tax, French drivers who favour large, gasguzzling cars would have to pay up to 3500 euros more for a new model come January. Conversely, drivers who opt for small cars emitting less than 140g per kilometre of carbon monoxide, will be rewarded with a rebate of up to 700 euros.


The plan follows a controversial decision by the Paris town council to try to ban four-wheel-drives from the streets of the capital.


Unlike the French, Australians are not so far facing the prospect of paying for their lifestyle choice.


Should Australia be following France's lead? Yes, say environmentalists, road safety experts and ordinary folk who detest SUVs.


Absolutely not, say proponents of the free market."


I think it's a question of consumer choice and desire and very clearly ? people want to move to these types of vehicles as an alternative," says Peter Sturrock, chief executive of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.


In fact, presently Australia does the opposite to the French rewarding those who buy SUVs with an artificially cheaper car. By virtue of an outdated Government policy, SUVs imported into Australia attract a lower tariff than passenger cars.


Twenty years ago, the Government decided that four-wheel-drives should only attract a 5 per cent import tariff compared to the 15 per cent tariff imposed on passenger cars. Back then, the policy made perfect sense as fourwheeldrives were used as off-road work vehicles. But, as everyone knows, these days they are more likely to be found clogging suburban streets at school pick-up time. "We are subsidising trauma and we are taxing safety," says Scruby.


Based on 2002 sales of four-wheeldrives, Australia lost an estimated $360 million in customs duties because of the tariff anomaly. Some Subarus, including the popular Forester, are even modified on the production line specifically for the Australian market to take advantage of the lower tariff. The Australian Forester is 10mm higher than those sold in the rest of the world to meet the 200mm ground clearance requirement.


To be fair, the Government is reducing the tariff on passenger cars to 10 per cent by January, and 5 per cent by 2010. But that's not enough, says the Australian Conservation Foundation's Michael Krockenberger.


The ACF, he says, has for many years been encouraging Australian governments to impose higher sales taxes on gas-guzzling cars, much like the proposed French model. The introduction of GST complicated that push, but Krockenberger says an alternative would be to reward those who buy environmentally friendly cars by setting car registration and insurance fees according to fuel efficiency. Those who genuinely need four-wheel-drives would be exempt from higher charges.


But are SUVs as hazardous to life and environment as their detractors suggest, or are they an easy target? In Australia, the latest figures from the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory show that in 2002 road transport caused 69.9 megatons of emissions, a rise of 27 per cent from 1990. For every litre of petrol consumed, 2.3kg of carbon dioxide is emitted so doesn't it make sense to encourage people to buy fuel-efficient cars?


Yes, says Michael Case, chief engineer at the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, but not by imposing taxes."


(Four-wheel-drives) are mostly quite expensive to buy and relatively expensive to operate and that limits their appeal," says Case. "Our approach has been to (encourage people to) buy vehicles that are appropriate for their needs." When pressed, though, Case is forced to acknowledge that it's clearly not that simple. For many people, the decision to buy a car is often more of a fashion statement than a practical consideration.