The Automobile, Part One: The High and the Mighty

January 26, 2003

By Michael Jessen

North Americans love their cars. Each of us spends an average of an hour a day in our autos. We tell ourselves we can't live without them if we're to enjoy the cornerstones of modern society -- efficiency, speed, and the understanding that time is money.

Yet if we really cared about money, we might reconsider our automobile love affair. Subsidies for road transportation in member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the rich-nations club) total more than $1 trillion and almost two-thirds of them are in the United States.

The US spends a minimum of $25 billion and perhaps as much as $75 billion annually militarily safeguarding oil tanker shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. The 1991 Persian Gulf war cost the US $61 billion and the country is preparing for another war in Iraq to continue to safeguard imported oil that would be unnecessary if the US auto fleet achieved the easily attainable improved efficiency goal of less than 10 kilometres a gallon.

As if all this wasted money is not enough, our reliance on the internal combustion engine also extracts serious environmental costs. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org), "personal use of cars and light trucks -- including pickups and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) -- is the single most damaging consumer behaviour."

Automobile driving is a major cause of global warming, air pollution, water pollution, habitat destruction, oil spills, traffic congestion, high taxes for road construction and maintenance, accidents, and international conflict. It also contributes to the exploitation of impoverished communities, such as those in Nigeria and Burma, during the extraction of petroleum.

At a time when automakers and car dealers are blanketing us with a blizzard of advertising for their new models, it is time to question our love affair with the car, at least the models most of us drive. Thus I begin a three-part series about the most culturally influential invention of the 20th century.

"High and Mighty" is the title of a new book by Keith Bradsher, a former Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times. The book is subtitled: "SUVs -- The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way."

"For a little over a year after The New York Times assigned me to be the paper's Detroit bureau chief, I was as enthusiastic as every auto writer about the boom times that SUVs had brought to the auto industry," notes Bradsher. "Then my editor asked me what happened when SUVs hit cars. It turned out that the stiff, high-riding underbodies designed for optimal off-road driving performance had made SUVs three times as likely as cars to kill the occupants for the vehicles they hit."

Bradsher says SUVs are poorly suited to replace family sedans. "SUVs have been shrewdly designed to exploit dozens of safety and regulatory loopholes, and they have also emerged as a disaster for safety and the environment."

In the tradition of Ralph Nader's classic "Unsafe at Any Speed," Bradsher's book is a wake-up call for automotive safety. As more and more SUVs clog North American streets, it is ironic that the baby boom generation that championed environmental safety is buying more and more of these gas-guzzling, dangerous vehicles.

SUVs are classified as light trucks, a loophole that has left automakers off the hook for everything from fuel efficiency standards and emissions standards to safety precautions.

The auto industry has deliberately designed SUVs to look boxy, macho, and menacing. Design cues like the drop-fendered design of the Dodge Ram pick-up or the Durango's front grill are intended to mimic the look of predators.

But, in a crash, the high bumper, stiff frame and steel-beam construction of SUVs override cars and roadside guardrails. By failing to absorb crash energy or to crumple as they should, they can ram into other motorists and shock their own occupants' bodies. And their high, tippy design and weak roofs place SUV drivers at risk of death or paralysis in a rollover crash.

"SUV occupants do have below-average death rates in collisions with other vehicles, and SUVs are especially effective at protecting the people inside when hit from the side, according to federal and insurance industry data," writes Bradsher. "Yet SUV occupants still have as high a death rate as car occupants or higher. The reason lies in the nemesis of high-riding vehicles: rollovers."

Bradsher notes that while rollovers account for less than 1 percent of all US auto crashes, they cause twenty-five percent of traffic deaths. Every year 10,000 people die from rollovers, more than from all side and rear impacts put together. In this respect, SUVs have a particularly deadly record. Five of every 100 crashes in a SUV are rollovers. By comparison, a minivan has a rate of 2 per 100 crashes and cars 1.7 per 100 crashes.

During the 1990s, 12,000 Americans were killed in SUV rollovers. According to the National Highway and Transportation Authority another 2,049 died in 2000.

"Recent statistical studies, most notably by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, have found that the rollover death rate per million registered SUVs is at least double the rate for cars," writes Bradsher, despite his acknowledgement that the safety record of SUVs has steadily improved over the past decade.

According to Tom Walsh, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group, hired Strat@comm, a public affairs firm with Detroit and Washington offices, to marshal data and arguments for rebuttal of "High and Mighty" claims regarding crash data, fuel economy and other issues.

Strat@comm (www.stratacomm.net/) has created a 15-page document titled "SUV Allegations and Facts" that is a point-by-point attack on Bradsher's book. And the firm will happily refer journalists to an even more detailed 70-page compilation of responses to what it considers common myths and off-base claims about SUVs.

Although it calls itself "the nation's leading automotive public affairs firm," Strat@comm official Diane Steed is accused by Corporate Crime Reporter (www.corporatecrimereporter.com) of starting the auto industry's "main fake grassroots group," the Coalition for Vehicle Choice (www.vehiclechoice.org) to "defeat fuel economy standards." A case study on the Strat@comm web site says the challenge in creating the Coalition for Vehicle Choice was to "preserve motorists' rights to safe, affordable transportation and a wide range of vehicle choices; head off unwise, restrictive regulations on fuel economy and emission standards, automotive safety and design, and global climate issues."

Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars (AFEC) is a non-profit group dedicated to decreasing America's reliance on foreign oil. AFEC was co-founded by columnist Arianna Huffington, film producer Lawrence Bender, environmental activist Laurie David, and movie and TV agent Ari Emanuel. Their goal is to mount a citizens' ad campaign aimed at getting people to stop driving SUVs and other gas-guzzling vehicles -- and jolting our leaders into taking action.

Currently we are producing ads parodying the drugs-equal-terror ads the Bush administration is running. Lawrence Bender, producer of "Pulp Fiction" and "Good Will Hunting," and director Scott Burns, co-creator of the "Got Milk?" ad campaign, have agreed to donate their services to make these ads a reality through A Band Apart, Bender's production company. You can see the ads and learn about the myths and realities about SUVs at www.detroitproject.com.

Cars are all about choices. Current SUV models are not the best choices for auto consumers. In a promising development, this year's Detroit Auto Show brought several major announcements from auto companies about new, cleaner car offerings, including new hybrids and other fuel-efficient vehicles. GM, for example, is planning hybrid-electric vehicle options for up to eight popular models of cars and trucks.

Improved SUV fuel efficiency is good, but one would hope SUV safety concerns will also be addressed in the new models. Until SUVs are both safe and fuel efficient, there are better automotive choices currently for sale on auto dealer lots. In "The Automobile, Part Two: What Would Jesus Drive?" I'll explore hybrids in depth.

RESOURCES - "High and Mighty" was published by Publicaffairs in September 2002. Two reviews of the book appeared in evWorld and can be found at http://www.evworld.com/databases/storybuilder.cfm?storyid=427 and http://www.evworld.com/databases/storybuilder.cfm?storyid=431. Another excellent book is "Taken For a Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of Air Pollution" by Jack Doyle and published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 2000. Doyle documents a sordid tale of delay, missed opportunities, and serious environmental culpability. This book chronicles the decades of lobbying, the technological slight-of-hand, and the outright deceptions automobile companies have used to delay enforcement of the Clean Air Act, undermine fuel economy standards, and prevent ratification of the global warming treaty. Doyle (author and consultant on environmental and energy issues) offers evidence from internal documents detailing auto manufacturers' knowledge of and hostility to cleaner technology. Information about road transportation and fossil fuel subsidies is taken from "Perverse Subsidies: How Tax Dollars Can Undercut the Environment and the Economy" by Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent, published by Island Press.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.


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