This month's topic comes courtesy of the September 16, 2002, issue of Automotive News (with a follow-up story covering the same topic in the October 7 issue). Before getting into the meat of my discussion, I think it bears mentioning that, despite the title, Automotive News is not a 100-percent, over-the-top, prays-to-the-gods-of-internal-combustion, pro-automotive periodical. This publication, which arrives in my mailbox every Monday morning, generally does an adequate job of presenting both sides of any given topic related to the industry in which I work.
However, after reading the "Chorus of SUV critics grows louder" story in the September 16 issue, and then the "Author bases anti-SUV conclusions on statistics" article from the October 7 issue, I felt it was time to address this latest anti-SUV tirade.
As someone who finds plenty wrong with the current SUV situation, as chronicled in my column last March, you SUV haters can rest easy knowing I'm never going to defend any of the hypocrites who buy an SUV when they don't need one. What I am going to defend is every American's right to buy an SUV if he wants to, whether he needs it or not. In both of the Automotive News stories I've referenced above a gentleman named Keith Bradsher is cited as leading the charge to educate consumers about the real dangers of SUVs. Mr. Bradsher's book, High and Mighty SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way has an interesting title, though I wonder if "High and Mighty" refers to SUVs or the liberal intelligentsia that often goes around this country trying to "protect us from ourselves for our own good."
In this case, I'm inclined to believe the latter simply because Mr. Bradsher partakes of the exact same type of double-talk he claims to be fighting against. Specifically, Mr. Bradsher takes issue with how the automakers paint SUVs as safe, rugged off-road vehicles capable of providing fun and adventure to their owners, even though most of those owners will never go off-road. He thinks the poor American consumer is being duped into buying SUVs by the big, mean automakers that are only interested in making a profit off of these rolling death traps that use too much gas.
According to the October 7 issue of Automotive News, Bradsher thinks automakers "manipulate automotive journalists by setting up press events for sport-utilities in exotic off-road locations when they know the vehicle won't be driven that way." It further states "this distracts reviewers from evaluating the vehicles where most people drive them." Wow, and I always thought my staff did a pretty good job of identifying how even the most capable off-road vehicles will rarely be driven off-road by the average owner. Now I learn that my entire editorial team has been carefully "manipulated" by those dastardly automakers. (Can you hear the "protecting us from ourselves" overtones yet?) Thankfully, we all have someone like Mr. Bradsher to shine the light of truth on this otherwise dark and sinister plot, right?
Well, not really. When Bradsher says that SUVs use more gas than other types of vehicles, he's generally correct, although many compact, and even some midsize SUVs, can get better mileage than midsize and larger sedans. But where Bradsher clearly crosses the line into deceitful reporting is his assertions that SUVs are inherently dangerous. Indeed, the title of his book calls them "The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles." If you're hearing echoes of Ralph Nader's exuberantly alarmist Unsafe at Any Speed book from 40 years ago, you're on the right track.
To justify his branding of SUVs as the modern-day Corvair, Bradsher points to accident and injury rates that show SUVs being involved in more crashes than full-size sedans or minivans. He specifically cited this point in an interview on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" with Bill O'Reilly. But as anyone with basic PR training knows, you can make statistics say whatever you want them to. Saying that SUVs are more dangerous than full-size sedans simply because they are involved in more accidents is like saying people who fly on airplanes are more likely to die in an air disaster when compared to people who never fly. That statement may seem overly simplistic but, remember, people on the ground occasionally die in air disasters, too.
The point is that the nature of the driver (just like the nature of people who do or don't fly) is critically important in both arguments. To put it another way, look at the type of people who drive full-size sedans and minivans. In case you don't already know, full-sedans, like the Ford Crown Victoria, Buick Regal or Toyota Avalon, tend to be driven by people over 50. And minivans tend to be driven by parents transporting children (increasingly, minivans are also being driven by people over 50 who have discovered how convenient those huge sliding doors are when it comes time to get in and out of the vehicle my in-laws and their Oldsmobile Silhouette being a perfect example). SUVs, on the other hand, tend to be driven by young people, and they often serve as a sort of rolling party because they can carry many bodies (like a minivan) and they have a cool image (pretty much the opposite of a minivan). Yes, lots of housewives have traded in their minivans for an SUV in recent years. But minivans accounted for just over one million in U.S. sales last year, while SUVs accounted for nearly four million. Obviously, it's not just suburban moms who buy these high-profile vehicles.
So you have grandparents and parents almost exclusively driving large sedans and minivans, while over in SUV land you have plenty of young, single people carrying all their friends to and from the latest social gathering. And, lo and behold, SUVs have a higher accident rate and injury rate than large sedans and minivans. Bradsher seems to have left this minor point out of his various media interviews. I'd hate to suggest he's using deceptive tactics to make a point and sell a product (sort of like touting the off-road prowess of certain vehicles that will likely never go off-road) but, oh, what the hell, I'm gonna say it anyway.
And I'll present this counter argument to Bradsher: If you take two equally skilled, competent and intelligent drivers, and put one in a Lincoln Navigator and the other in a Lincoln LS, the driver in the Navigator is less likely to suffer serious injuries from a traffic accident. Keep in mind that competent and intelligent drivers always wear their seatbelt and understand that SUVs don't handle like a sports car. Or try this one on for size: You have just been told by the Great Spirit that in the next seven days you will be involved in a serious traffic accident. You don't know where, you don't know when, and you don't know the specific nature of the crash, but it will happen. The only factor you can control is what vehicle you will be driving for the next week Cadillac Escalade, Honda Odyssey or Toyota Avalon. Which one do you pick, Mr. Bradsher? Keep in mind that the two vehicles you don't pick will also be involved in the accident.
If Bradsher wants to make an argument that it's easier for bad drivers to crash in an SUV than in a minivan, I might actually go along with that argument. But that doesn't make the SUV "the world's most dangerous vehicle," it simply proves what we already knew: even a large, heavy vehicle can't save lousy drivers from themselves.
Another point Bradsher fails to mention is the increasingly carlike nature of SUVs. In the last two years, Ford's best-selling SUVs, the Explorer and Expedition, went from riding on a solid rear axle to utilizing an independent rear suspension. This move greatly increased the stability of both vehicles. How do we know this? Well, beyond simple logic and some instrumented testing under controlled conditions, one of our editors recently had to perform a rapid lane change maneuver in our long-term Explorer after an accident happened right in front of him on a Los Angeles freeway. He swerved hard left and then hard right, recreating the exact driving style that had previous Ford Explorers going rubber side up. In this instance, the 2002 Explorer remained stable and composed. Once again, not bad for being one of "the world's most dangerous vehicles," huh?
I'll concede Bradsher's point that most SUV owners never go off-road, and I agree with him that automakers (especially domestic automakers) have more to gain by selling high-priced, high-profit SUVs instead of lower-priced cars. But, as is usually the case, market forces are addressing these issues. Today's SUV buyers demand a more refined and stable vehicle. Foreign automakers were the first ones to offer carlike SUVs, but the domestic manufacturers are quickly catching up (with models like the redesigned Explorer and Expedition).
As for vehicle emissions and gas mileage, SUVs are making rapid advances in both areas as well. Honda's new Pilot already has ULEV (ultra low emissions vehicle) certification, and it gets 17/22 miles-per-gallon in city/highway driving (numbers not far behind the minivans and full-size sedans Bradsher has such an affinity for).
What Bradsher and the rest of this country's SUV haters need to realize is that the genie is out of the bottle. Fifteen years ago most Americans didn't know what an SUV was, and they certainly didn't realize the kind of people-/cargo-carrying capacity such vehicles offered. They also didn't know how reassuring it feels to sit high above the road surface. Now every American over the age of 10 has either driven or ridden in an SUV, and while most may not like the tippy handling or harsh ride over broken pavement, they love the "king of the road" sensation and versatile seating/cargo options. They also like knowing that, if they wanted to, they could scamper away from the beaten path for an off-road adventure. Unlike Mr. Frost, most will never actually take that road less traveled, but we Americans like having our options open.
Once again, I want to emphasize that SUVs are not for everyone, and, like any good American, I don't support single, city-dwelling, white-collar professionals, especially ones that rarely carry more than a briefcase or purse and never go off-road, buying seven-passenger vehicles that get less than 20 mpg. However, my reasoning relates to efficiency and geopolitical circumstances (it'd be good not to further grow our dependence on imported oil). However, I'm not going to sell the public a bunch of misinformation about SUVs being inherently unsafe because, well, they aren't. I also don't appreciate all the hypocritical Hollywood "environmentalists" who claim allegiance to Mother Earth from the cockpits of their Range Rovers, Navigators and Hummer H2s.
Of course, regardless of my or Bradsher's desire to see fewer SUVs on the road, the truth is that these vehicles are not going away. They will undoubtedly continue to get even safer, more refined and more fuel-efficient, but they will never disappear from the American landscape. If that thought bothers you, well, now you know how I've felt for the past two decades about rap music. Rather ironic, actually, when you consider the growing bond between certain SUVs and rap music.
But hey, at least SUVs will be getting more refined as the years pass.