Sydney Morning Herald – Good Weekend – Saturday 6 November 2004
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
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
to torching SUVs and even fire-bombing entire dealerships.
Meanwhile clandestine "Toorak Tractor tagging" campaigns continue in
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
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
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
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
a passive little bend on a sunny dry day like today," says
The Allen family was on its way home to
Would the family have survived had they been driving a station wagon? A coronial inquest is pending, so
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
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."
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
Overall, the incidence of fatal SUV crashes in
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
I've arranged to meet Scruby outside the
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
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.
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."
Bradsher's book singles out the
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
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
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
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
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 "
But the advertisements featuring
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.
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,