On the Road to Smaller, Fuel-Efficient SUVs

Consumers, while still in love with the goliaths, are steering the marketplace to roll out safer, less-wasteful models, experts say.

Published: 02-Feb-2003

INGTON -- The bad habits of gas-guzzling, road-hogging sport utility
vehicles are a red-hot topic, but consumers bought 4 million of them last
year, and the Bush administration is unlikely to impose safety and
environmental changes that could kill the market.

America's infatuation with the off-road behemoths that became a suburban
creature comfort doesn't seem headed toward a rejection of SUVs -- only a
desire to tame them by making them less prone to flip over or crush cars in
collisions and somewhat less wasteful of fuel.

The government's top highway safety regulator, emergency room physician
Jeffrey Runge, recently sent auto executives into a panic by saying he would
never let his children drive some SUV models that are more likely to roll
over.

But Runge also pointedly noted that he would rather the industry tackle the
safety issues than try to solve them by federal fiat.

"We cannot regulate fast enough to keep up with technological innovations,
nor would we want to," Runge said in a speech last month in Detroit. "This
administration will always prefer voluntary brilliance to enforced
compliance."

Runge's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is completing a
rating system that will tell consumers how likely SUVs are to roll over in
emergency maneuvers. The agency is also exploring new safety standards to
reduce injury when SUVs and pickup trucks slam into the sides of cars, but
officials say it is unclear whether a regulation will follow. The process
could take five years or more.

The marketplace might get there faster. The evidence is already in auto
showrooms. Only a couple of years ago, tanks like the Ford Excursion
epitomized the SUV craze. Smaller, car-like "cross-utility" vehicles such as
the Honda Pilot are now the rage.

"I think that we are going to see more of what are called crossover
designs -- SUVs that are less truck-like," said Brian O'Neill of the
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a longtime critic of SUV safety
flaws. "We're going to see SUVs getting a little lower and cars getting a
little taller."

Consumers bought nearly 3 million traditional SUVs last year, and the Ford
Explorer remained the best-selling model of any size. But while demand for
bigger SUVs remained flat, sales of smaller cross-utility vehicles surged by
23%, to more than 1.2 million, according to WardsAuto.com, a leading source
of industry statistics.

A Harris Interactive poll released last week captures the mood of consumers.
While 82% reject columnist Arianna Huffington's contention that SUV owners
indirectly support terrorism by hogging fuel, 70% believe Congress should
require SUVs to get better mileage. Smaller SUVs do that.

With war looming in the Middle East and with it the likelihood of higher gas
prices, the debate may get more intense.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill to require SUVs to
get the same average gas mileage as cars by 2011. Auto makers are required
to achieve an average of 27.5 miles per gallon for their passenger cars but
only 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks, including SUVs. The Bush
administration has mandated a modest increase of 1.5 miles per gallon by
2007. The 2003 model of the best-selling full-size SUV, Chevrolet's Tahoe,
gets 14 miles per gallon in city driving, 18 on the highway.

SUV owners and car drivers don't dispute that SUVs should get better
mileage, polls show. But when it comes to SUV safety, American motorists
divide sharply between those who drive SUVs and those who don't.
Misconceptions abound on both sides.

For example, many car drivers swear the best thing for safety would be to
ban SUVs. Statistics show they are wrong.

Banning the biggest SUVs and pickups would save about 160 lives a year, but
outlawing the littlest cars would prevent about 700 deaths, according to
Insurance Institute estimates. That's because small cars have less steel and
structure to protect occupants.

"There is no question that if the fleet mix could be changed to improve
safety, far bigger gains would occur if the smallest cars and SUVs were
increased in size than if the largest SUVs were downsized," said O'Neill,
president of the institute, an auto safety think tank.

To put the issue in perspective, of the people who die in passenger car
wrecks, only 4% are killed in crashes with SUVs, according to a 1999
Insurance Institute study.

The main reason is that single-car crashes claim the largest share of
victims, about 40%.

An additional 11% of the people killed in cars die in crashes with pickups,
which have many of the same safety problems as SUVs but get far less public
attention. Crashes with other cars claimed 21% of the victims. (The
remainder are crashes involving commercial trucks and accidents involving
more than two vehicles.)

Likewise, the perception among SUV owners that their safety is significantly
enhanced by riding high doesn't square with accident data. Actually, the
risk of death is about the same in an SUV as in a mid-size sedan.

"SUVs have a somewhat higher fatality rate, and the excess is due to
rollovers," O'Neill said.

An analysis by the institute found that the fatality rate for occupants of
mid-size cars was 121 deaths per 1 million registered vehicles in the year
2000. The death rate was a little higher, 126 per million vehicles, for
mid-size four-wheel-drive SUVs.

The glaring weakness of SUVs is that they are more likely to be involved in
rollovers, an extremely violent type of crash. The rollover death rate for
people in mid-size four-wheel-drive SUVs was more than two times higher than
that for those in mid-size sedans, according to the institute.

Many SUV drivers don't seem to be aware of the inherent rollover risk in the
high-profile geometry of their vehicles. Nearly 6 in 10 disagree with the
statement that SUVs are dangerous to occupants because of their tendency to
roll over, according to the Harris polls. Those motorists are "denying
facts," O'Neill said.

The auto industry stoutly defends SUVs as solid and safe. The main reason
people die in rollover crashes, car makers suggest, is that they don't
buckle up.

"Of the 9,882 killed in rollovers in the year 2000, 75%, or 7,412 people,
perished not because of the vehicle but because they were unbelted and
ejected from the vehicle," General Motors said in a recent statement, citing
government statistics.

No one quarrels with the belt-use numbers. But since rollovers are rare
(less than 3% of crashes) yet extraordinarily dangerous (about 30% of
vehicle occupant deaths), safety advocates say the burden remains on car
companies to build more forgiving SUVs.

"The question should be whether rollovers can be averted in the first place
or their consequences mitigated," said David Pittle, vice president of
technical policy for Consumers Union.

The most promising technology to protect SUV and car occupants appears to be
side air bags, which may help prevent an unbelted driver in an SUV from
being thrown out in a rollover. They could also reduce head and chest
injuries to occupants of cars rammed in the side by an SUV, a particularly
lethal type of crash.

Though the auto industry has developed advanced side air bags, they are
usually not offered as standard equipment. The NHTSA is considering whether
the government should require them.

Putting anti-lock brakes and computerized stability-control systems on all
SUVs could also reduce the number of accidents. The stability systems sense
a possible loss of control and automatically apply brakes or power as
needed. They are available on many SUVs but not all.

Federal standards can provide a minimum threshold of safety, but by no means
do they make vehicles fail-safe. Some experts say the debate over SUV safety
has focused too much on what can be done about standards and equipment and
too little on the role drivers can play.

"Rather than just focus on the vehicles, why not help raise the skill level
of drivers?" asked David Cole, director of the Michigan-based Center for
Automotive Research.

Cole envisions using video game-like simulators to teach teenage drivers how
to avoid rolling Dad's Chevy Blazer.

"We have done a very inadequate job as a country using the tools we have to
teach people how to react more properly in emergency situations," Cole said.
Even with side air bags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control,
SUVs will still be more prone to instability than cars. "It's an issue that
won't go away," Cole said. "SUVs have a higher center of gravity -- it's
embedded in the physics."

Meanwhile, drivers of cars and SUVs will keep competing and cursing each
other on congested roads and in shopping malls with tight parking spaces.

"Some SUV drivers are like the Cadillac drivers when I was a kid," said
consumer advocate Pittle, an elder statesman of automotive safety. "They
drive fast, they flick their headlights, they cut in front of you."

Some SUV owners say they have had enough of the critics and warn of a
backlash.

"I don't see any constitutional basis for government to intervene," said
Scott Feldman, a Washington, D.C.-area pizzeria owner who is on his third
SUV. "Whenever there's a snowstorm around here, they make a pitch for
volunteers with four-wheel-drive vehicles to pick up hospital workers. And
now in the next breath they want to eliminate them?"

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