Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend Saturday 6 November 2004


Big mothers

Author: John van Tiggelen


They're built to ford rivers, scale dunes, pull a horse float or a barra boat, but many will never get a whiff of country air. At least those high and mighty four-wheel-drives that ferry the kids to school are safe, right? John van Tiggelen explores suburbia's love affair with the SUV, and meets the growing band of critics who say they're death machines.

On a morning of no more than usual metropolitan mayhem, a motorist running an amber light strands his car across a pedestrian crossing. Had he been in a regular car, people might have quietly if grumpily filed past. Instead, several office-goers feel compelled to thump the bonnet. "Arrogant prick!" yells one. "Learn some manners," a woman shouts at the stony-faced driver. And a third: "Bloody four-wheel-drivers, you're all the same!"


Urban four-wheel-drivers be warned: people love to hate you. A recent survey of Australian motorists by insurer AAMI reveals that seven in every 10 do not feel safe sharing the road with you. Three in five want you to have a special licence. One in two thinks you are aggressive and arrogant. And (presumably the same) one in two wants you, or at least your vehicle, out of town.


Lest anyone shrug this off as standard Australian tall poppy-lopping, in the past


year Paris, London and New York have all canvassed ridding city streets of large four-wheel-drives, or SUVs (sports utility vehicles) as they're increasingly known. London's


mayor went so far as to call "complete idiots" those who drop their children off at school in their "Chelsea Tractors". From next year,


the French plan to slug their gas-guzzling quatre-quatres with a hefty taxe verte. In America, Ralph Nader, the consumer activist, describes four-wheel-drivers as narcissists, websites urge road users to give them the finger and a Californian group has taken


to torching SUVs and even fire-bombing entire dealerships.


Meanwhile clandestine "Toorak Tractor tagging" campaigns continue in Melbourne, with stickers such as "I'm polluting your air" and "Child Killing Vehicle" being pasted


next to "Baby on Board" signs. Anti-SUV sentiment is also believed to be stoking the documented rise in road rage. According


to the aforementioned AAMI survey, for example, SUV drivers are 11/2 times as likely as regular drivers to meet with abuse in shopping centre car parks. Even Ford Australia's own marketing research, sighted by Good Weekend, reveals that four-wheel-drivers are seen as "exhibitionists, would-be's and wankers".


The morning's bonnet-bashers come to mind as I stand on the viewing platform at Crashlab, a car safety testing facility in a barren Sydney suburb. They'd have loved it. The good people of Crashlab are planning to take a spanking new four-wheel-drive, rig it up on a trolley, aim it at a concrete pole and crash it, just as they've done every Wednesday afternoon for the past few months. Last week's trophy stands in a corner of the workshop. It's a hulking white number, heavily crumpled on its left side. The car being trussed up for today's test is equally high and vast.


The so-called pole test is a new development at Crashlab, designed because the standard ANCAP (Australian New Car Assessment Program) test for assessing side impact doesn't work on most four-wheel-drives due to their high clearance.


"One in five new cars being bought today is a four-wheel-drive, so we couldn't ignore them any longer," explains James Hurnall from the Australian Automobile Association, which helps run the tests. "People think size means safety, but people need to think again." Earlier he'd replayed in slow-mo a tape of last week's arranged smash. Colliding at 29kmh, the head of the crash test dummy in the passenger seat snapped left, then right, then sharply left again, cracking on the pole.


Most people know that SUVs can be lethal to other road users. Their weight gives them added momentum, but it's their height that's the real danger. Regular cars are engineered to withstand collisions through reinforcements, crumple zones and airbag systems that are triggered by cars of a compatible height.


Four-wheel-drives (with a few notable exceptions such as Mercedes) override these defences. Especially if hit by an SUV side-on, or "T-boned" as the industry term goes, the occupant of a regular car has little or no chance. During the 1990s, the Federal Office of Road Safety (now the Australian Transport Safety Bureau) examined 50 such cases. Not a single SUV driver or passenger died, at the expense of 66 lives of the 110 occupants that they T-boned.


Add a bullbar into the equation, and things only get nastier. A bullbar, or roo-bar, is designed to minimise damage to the car by confining the damage to the kangaroo. In the bush this makes sense. In the city, where pedestrians, cyclists and fellow motorists are left to absorb the impact, it's no more responsible than playing football in steel-capped boots.


Australian Transport Safety Bureau statistics from 2002 show that in a crash with a regular car, an SUV occupant is 3.5 times as likely


to survive as the other driver. Yet this hardly makes SUVs safer overall, as multiple car smashes form only a minority of road fatalities. Released only weeks ago, a national analysis of major single-vehicle crashes by Monash University's Accident Research Centre determined SUVs were significantly less "crashworthy", or safe for the driver, than small or medium-sized cars. "4WD vehicles performed poorly in single vehicle collisions irrespective of whether the collision involved


a rollover," the report concluded. "Anecdotally, many people choose to purchase 4WD vehicles based on a perception of high levels of occupant protection in these vehicles. In single vehicle crashes at least, the results show this perception is poorly founded."


Being high and heavy, SUVs handle like light trucks, take longer to stop and, given the same reaction time, will hit a wall or a pole with greater force. But SUV drivers are also less safe precisely because they think they are secure. The AAMI survey, for instance, found that twice as many four-wheel-drivers as regular motorists admit to using a hand-held phone while driving. As European studies have shown time and again, owners of small cars drive more safely because they sense they're vulnerable.


One of the most publicised accidents involving an SUV occurred in January


when a family of six travelling in a Toyota LandCruiser came to grief on the Hume Highway near Tarcutta, halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. The local constable, Mark Hawthorne, recently showed me the site. The fatal bend is the second part of an S-bend after a long uphill climb. "It seems


a passive little bend on a sunny dry day like today," says Hawthorne. "But trucks drop diesel here, and when there's light rain after a long dry, you just know there's a good chance something is going to happen."


The Allen family was on its way home to Canberra, heading north. The mother, who was driving, overshot the curve, swung back too sharply and careened into the grassy verge. Hawthorne shows me dozens of similar tyre tracks - the Cruiser was obviously neither the first nor the last. "I've seen three prangs here, including a truck," says Hawthorne. "But who knows how many end up in the grass, wipe their foreheads, go 'phew', and drive on." The Allens' car, however, slewed back towards the road, clipped a concrete kerb and rolled six times across the bitumen. Both parents and two of their four daughters died.


Would the family have survived had they been driving a station wagon? A coronial inquest is pending, so Hawthorne cannot comment. But the Australian Transport Safety Bureau informs that roll-overs account for one in three fatal SUV crashes, compared to one in eight for passenger cars. And figures just out from Monash University's Accident Research Centre highlight that the driver of a rolled SUV is almost 50 per cent more likely to be seriously injured than had he rolled a wagon or a sports car or even a small hatchback.


Afew days later, in a vast car auction yard in Melbourne's industrial west, crash analyst Shane Richardson guides me through a sea of vehicles written off by insurers. One section is devoted to SUVs, and, unlike the other cars, most have crumpled roofs. "If you're in a car and you get yourself in an awkward position and you give yourself a fistful of steering wheel, your car's going


to spin round and slide sideways," explains Richardson. "If you do that in your 4WD,


it's very likely you'll end up on your roof."


Richardson, a former army engineer completing a PhD in roll-over protection systems, pokes his head through the shattered driver's window of a LandCruiser to inspect bloodstains on the twisted sunvisor. "This driver wouldn't be too flash," he says, bumping his head on the inverted ceiling. "A seatbelt is designed for a frontal collision. In a roll-over you are thrown into the roof as the roof collapses, so you get a diving type of injury to your head or spine, like quadriplegia, from a relatively minor impact. That's if it doesn't kill you."


In the US, two statewide studies (in Arkansas and Utah) reveal that almost half


of all cases of spinal paralysis, including those resulting from falls, birth defects, illnesses and other accidents, are caused by roll-overs, even though roll-overs form just a tiny proportion of all crashes. In fact, the American occupant death rate for SUVs is higher than for regular cars. (In Australia it is about even, once the extra deaths caused by SUVs to other motorists are factored out.)


Overall, the incidence of fatal SUV crashes in Australia almost doubled during the '90s, in line with SUV sales. In 1980, one in 50 new vehicles sold was an SUV. In 1990 it was one in 12. Today it is one in five. Of those, up to 90 per cent will not go off-road. Only one in four SUV buyers say they even want to. The overwhelming majority are simply buying substitutes for passenger cars.


So how did a vehicle that offers no safety benefits to those inside, is a danger to others and a devil to park, slurps petrol at a time of soaring oil prices, belches up to twice as much in the way of greenhouse gases as an average car and is ultimately designed for the bush become so popular in the city?


"Mosman wives have only one thing on their minds," says Harold Scruby as we watch one squeeze her enormous LandCruiser through traffic in the affluent North Shore Sydney suburb. "Themselves." Scruby, a former deputy mayor of Mosman, heads the Pedestrian Council of Australia, a one-zealot show that wields remarkable influence on road safety issues. In recent years Scruby has successfully lobbied for 40kmh speed limits in some North Shore business districts and outside schools, as well as for the installation of speed cameras to police them.


I've arranged to meet Scruby outside the Cammeray Public School, near Mosman, just before school's out. "Then you can see for yourself how these drivers behave," he said over the phone. Arriving early I note a dozen different SUV models within five minutes. LandCruisers, Discoveries, Escapes, Explorers, X-Trails, Outlanders, Freelanders, Pathfinders and Jackaroos coast down the leafy street. "There's not many with mud on them, are there," observes a well-coiffed lollipop lady, standing nearby. Her name's Janet Drady and she's been working this children's crossing for seven years. When she hears I'm doing a story on four-wheel-drives, she clasps a hand to her bosom and rolls her eyes. "Death on wheels, they are. The drivers whiz past, you know, like this" - she holds an imaginary handset to her ear - "especially in the big black ones. Some don't know how to reverse park, or they'll take two parks when one will do. In summer they keep their engines running for the air-con. They'll sit there putting on their make-up and then, when they get beeped to move on, it's on for young and old." She pauses to draw breath. "This year there's a group of mothers that are the worst I've ever seen. They are rude, they are arrogant and when the ranger books them, you know what they say? They say, 'Oh, that's only pocket money to us.'"


Scruby turns up clutching a camera. We've barely said hello when he rushes off to photograph a mother who has double-parked. "She's in a Mercedes four-wheel-drive, so she thinks she can do that," he says when he comes back. "She went absolutely nuts, but I've got her." He swivels to glare at a black Jeep Grand Cherokee driving past. "Did you see that?


She's on the phone! In a kids' zone! That is extraordinary behaviour!" Again he takes off in hot pursuit.


Children stream out of school. Scruby keeps a close watch from the kerb. He photographs another phone-and-drive woman who then gets in his face and threatens to report him for harassment. "Sometimes you must feel like


a parking inspector," I say to him. But Scruby is unflappable. "I like being not liked for the right reasons," he says. "I'm just trying to save kids' lives. If that woman had hit a child, she would have run about screaming that it was an accident. But these are not accidents. These are 'deliberates' waiting to happen."


Two more mothers stalk our way. They turn out to be admirers. Together with Scruby, the women have lobbied to install a turning circle beyond the school drop-off zone, so that the drivers in their large cars can complete U-turns instead of clumsy three-point turns. (Reversing SUVs are a well-known child hazard. A 2002 road safety report disclosed that about one Australian toddler a month was run over in the driveway of the family home, and more than half of the passenger vehicles involved were SUVs. A subsequent NSW hospital study confirmed that SUV owners were 21/2 times as likely to back over their own child.)


The women are keen to tell Scruby about the recent prosecution of a man for parking illegally in someone's driveway. "Good on you ladies," says Scruby. "Keep feral."


At times, the persecution of urban SUV drivers is reminiscent of the "Volvo driver" stigma of the '80s, when Volvos were seen


to be safe cars for unsafe drivers. But Todd Hallenbeck, the public affairs manager of Volvo Australia, points out that in contrast to SUVs, Volvos really were safer. "Volvo drivers of the past were more worried about people running into them, but SUV drivers have a different mindset. There's an attitude of, 'It doesn't matter what I hit, I'm in this big, heavy thing, so I'll be okay,'" says Hallenbeck. "We're not talking about a car that is able to absorb crash impact. We're talking about a car that will pass that impact on to another vehicle."


Unlike most auto companies, Volvo's prize SUV offering, the XC90, has undergone extensive roll-over testing to produce


a state-of-the-art roll-over protection system. It is also designed to be "crash-compatible" with small cars by having a lower impact point than other SUVs. Yet Hallenbeck, a rarity among his industry colleagues, most of whom prefer to mouth platitudes about freedom of choice for consumers, concedes that the XC90 remains "an open wound" in Volvo's range because even the safest SUV rubs against the company's core value of safety.


"An SUV is a brilliant vehicle in its environment. It can tow a boat or a float, carry seven people and be driven into the hills on weekends," says Hallenbeck. "It's like a sports car - great in terms of what it's designed for, but ultimately it is a niche product. You've


got to ask yourself, if you're driving in urban areas, what the hell are you doing in a four-wheel-drive? There are far better alternatives for dropping the kids off at school."


Not only does Hallenbeck believe that the popularity of SUVs is misguided, he believes regulators should rein it in by raising taxes or third-party insurance premiums to reflect their greater cost to society. (At present SUV prices are effectively subsidised because they attract a 5 per cent import tariff compared to


15 per cent for ordinary passenger cars. This discrepancy, which stems from the days when SUVs were sold as off-road work vehicles, is due to be phased out by 2010.)


But if the antipathy to urban SUVs is justified, as Hallenbeck agrees it is, where should it be directed? At those who sell them or those who buy them?


"Yeah, well, that's the meat in the bun," says Hallenbeck. "I'm not sure how you disentangle that one. I guess it goes back to the basic law of selling: if the customer doesn't want it, they won't buy it. To you and me it might seem they are buying something they don't need and will never use for what it is designed to do. But they still want it."


The world's first suv was launched by General Motors in 1935. It was, ironically enough, called the Suburban. Initially marketed as a "carry-all" for passengers or deliveries, it eventually found a niche ferrying the dead for funeral homes. Similar vehicles came and went. It wasn't until the late '60s, when the Jeep's military heritage and four-wheel-drive function found some macho appeal, that people started to think of these canopied pick-up trucks as anything other than workhorses. America's auto industry began dressing them up as cars, in the vain hope they might sell.


In his history of the SUV, High and Mighty, business writer Keith Bradsher blames American subsidies, tax concessions, lax safety standards, corporate greed and cynical marketing for the subsequent explosion in the SUV market. Nonetheless, his book also makes clear that the degree of customer demand for SUVs took the industry by complete surprise. In 1996, the Ford Motor Company launched a new SUV called the Expedition at its Michigan Truck Plant. Essentially a jazzed-up, overpriced truck, the Expedition was expected to be a niche product. Instead sales went ballistic. So Ford jazzed it up a little more, named it the Lincoln Navigator, and charged a whole lot more. Within two years the factory, one of


53 owned by Ford worldwide, had become the most lucrative plant of any industry in the world. Its annual takings almost eclipsed those of McDonald's, and its initial three-year profits were enough to pay for Ford's complete takeover of Volvo Cars in 1999.


To make sense of this, Bradsher quotes the work of Clotaire Rapaille, an influential anthropologist who has performed extensive market research for both Ford and General Motors. Rapaille believes that SUVs appeal to people's deepest, most reptilian instincts for survival. Americans live in a climate of fear, contends Rapaille. Although he concedes this fear is mostly irrational - crime rates continue to decrease - they are becoming increasingly atavistic and crime-obsessed. And so they retreat behind gated communities, clutch their mobile phones and power about in muscular SUVs whose front grilles and fenders have been deliberately styled to look menacing. Rapaille should know - he helped design them. He told Bradsher that people "in touch with their inner reptile" preferred vehicles that looked especially likely to demolish others: "The reptilian says, 'If there's a crash, I want the other guy to die.'"


When it came to designing the interior, Rapaille focused on another reptilian response. "The number one feeling [concerning safety] is that everything surrounding you should


be round and soft," he told The New Yorker earlier this year. "That's why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it's soft and if I'm high, then I feel safe. It's amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will look at is how many cupholders it has."


In Australia, mammoth American SUVs such as Hummers have proved unpopular with all but the likes of Rene Rivkin and Mark Philippoussis. But Con Stavros, a senior lecturer in marketing at RMIT, says fear has also played a role in Australia's SUV boom, which took off when road tolls were high, road rage made the dictionary and Range Rovers ruled Toorak. Stavros, however, stresses buyers aren't lured only by a false sense of safety. SUVs offer a sense of possibility: the dream of getting away from it all. "There is also an ostentatious element to driving an SUV," says Stavros. "It's a sense of superiority, of 'my life is worth more than yours'."


Bradsher's book singles out the US auto industry's own findings that the type of people who buy SUVs as family vehicles 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."


Sales surveys in this country reveal that the typical SUV buyer is a male in his 40s. But he's not necessarily the typical driver, says Ford Australia's Russell Christophers, who is privy to extensive focus group research on the subject. He says "a really typical story" involves a husband coming home and announcing, "'Darling, I've just bought a four-wheel-drive because we're going to do things with our lives on weekends.' And he drives it to and from work for about three months and finds it really cumbersome, so he says, 'It would be safer for you and the kids to drive to and from school and do the shopping in this, and I'll take the other car because it will be easier for me.' And it turns out that the woman really likes the experience of sitting up high."


Marketing types point out the generation of mothers commanding large SUVs is the same one that pioneered power-dressing in the '80s. Conceivably, in this age of status anxiety, the SUV is seen to deliver respect. However much you might struggle for control at work or at home, on the road you are a player. Take two friends, both of whom are single mothers steering Jeep Cherokees around Melbourne. "It makes me feel good and safe when I look down on traffic," says one, an ever-busy publicist whose favourite line is 'I love my life', and who claims she needs her SUV for her sons, their surfboards, the weekend trips to the


beach house and an annual excursion to the snow. The other is less enamoured of her dateless, desk-bound existence and bestows on her car the kind of attention others reserve for pets: "I love taking it for a drive. It cheers me up just to wash it


or buy it new accessories." Each morning she heads


to work and dreams of driving right on by, and on, and on. "In my mind, I'm halfway up Cape York.


In reality, though, I doubt I'll ever get there."


No-one in the automotive industry appears worried that the backlash against SUVs may have an impact on sales. The market is too robust for that, they say. As well, the kind of person who pays good money to perch high behind a bullbar evidently believes the world's a hostile place to begin with. But the good news is that the SUV is evolving. Such has been the growth of SUVs that the divide between them and regular passenger cars is fast being filled with hybrids.


In the mid-'90s, senior executives at Ford's Melbourne plant, in Broadmeadows, were keeping


a watchful eye on this explosion of small to medium-sized crossover vehicles, or so-called soft-roaders, such as the Toyota Rav4, the Honda CR-V and the Subaru Forester. They were squatter, safer and sportier than conventional SUVs. While they had four-wheel-drive, many were - and still are - being bought by young women who were unlikely ever to use it.


In 1998, Ford began tapping the market for a large soft-roader. Interviewing owners of both station wagons and large SUVs, researchers found neither group was entirely happy. "So we went looking for


a product that combined the best attributes of each," says Russell Christophers, the chief program engineer. Ford promptly found that the needs of both groups were best met, wait for it, by a station wagon, albeit with four-wheel-drive. But when Ford took this concept back to the focus groups, they didn't like it. "Image was important," recalls Christophers. "They said, 'I'm not sure what I'm after but it's not that.


It has to say the right things about me as a person.


I lead an active lifestyle. I want my vehicle to facilitate that, to be an extension of me. But I don't go off-road.'"


Six years and half a billion dollars of research and development later, Ford came up with the Territory,


a wagon with altitude aimed squarely at yuppie mums. The Territory comes with an umbrella holder, a drawer to stash the laptop, a special compartment


in the boot for wet beach gear and plenty of cup holders. It also has a detachable litter bin "that can go through a dishwasher", explains Louise Teesdale, Ford's media manager. "People love that sort of stuff. And the interior can be personalised with 60 accessory possibilities."


Marketing-speak plays by its own rules. The Territory, for example, comes in a range of colours including "Silhouette", "Lightning Strike" and "Indiana" - otherwise known as black, silver and red ochre. Similarly, The Sydney Morning Herald's Drive team found the Territory performed poorly in the terrain after which it was named. (Another shortlisted name was the Kakadu, so it's unlikely Ford had the Australian Capital Territory in mind.)


But the advertisements featuring Indiana-coloured Territories crossing deserts, rivers and salt pans are no more marketing adventure than a cigarette ad set in an alpine environment is selling fresh air. It's about the perception of adventure, which, as Ford's market research makes amply clear, is all people really want. Half the Territories on offer don't even have four-wheel-drive - they just look as if they do. It all comes back to lifestyle. In marketing lingo, lifestyle is not a mode of living - it is about how you perceive yourself, and how others perceive you. So to lead an active lifestyle it's not enough to go to the gym. To lead an active lifestyle you must drive to the gym in an SUV.


Harold Scruby, the anti-SUV activist, drives a soft-roader, a Subaru Outback that is yet to see a spot of dust. He acknowledges that SUVs are becoming safer and that come 2010, when their favourable tariff regime will cease, they should lose favour in the market. But he points out that the country will be paying for the folly of its fling with SUVs for years to come. At the moment, the majority of SUVs are being driven by the country's most experienced drivers, that is, the baby-boomers who can afford them. By the end of the decade, the boom in SUVS will have sagged into the second-hand car market, and many will be bought by the very kids who now ride in the back. "That's when we'll find out just how lethal these machines can be," says Scruby. "You mix them with youth, inexperience, speed and drugs, and you've got another thing coming."


It's an all-too-real scenario, agrees Shane Richardson, the crash analyst. Unless authorities step in by, for instance, restricting young drivers to lighter vehicles, the country will inevitably be dealing with escalating numbers of young para- and quadriplegics caught in SUV roll-overs. Not to mention the toll from SUVs boring into smaller cars at head-height.


Richardson says it's not enough for regulators to focus on drink-driving, speeding and seatbelts. "It's the responsibility of government regulators to impose safety standards, but they've been dodging the problems with roll-overs and crash-compatibility for years," says Richardson. "Tractors, buses and earthmoving equipment are required to provide protection against roll over, but not cars. Why not? The solutions aren't easy. They will take time and some clever engineering. But the longer we leave them, the harder they get."


Back at Crashlab, the trussed-up SUV is set for its final ride. The trolley cable is humming and the dummies look as erect and eager as the rest of us up in the viewing room. Yet among the assorted industry types there is no one from the car's maker. "We invite the manufacturer every time we crash one of their cars, but we don't really expect them to show up," explains the Australian Automobile Association's James Hurnall. "By keeping the public informed, the tests serve to pressure companies to make their cars safer. Because we know from experience that they won't do it unless they have to."


But companies needn't get overly concerned. Take the roll-over test. There is none. Although the US Congress recently legislated that SUVs be tested for their propensity to roll-over, Australia's state and federal governments, which fund the bulk of the Australian New Car Assessment Program at Crashlab, show no such inclination. Nor is there any proposal to test how SUVs perform once they do roll. Says Shane Richardson: "You can rage at the people who buy SUVs. You can fume at those who sell them. But you have to remember, it's government regulators who aren't doing a thing about it. And I want to kick them in the head for that."

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