Unsafe at any speed

The author of "High and Mighty" explains why SUVs are not just gas-guzzling pollution machines, they're dangerous to drive.

By Suzy Hansen

Published October 24, 2002 6:28PM (EDT)

There are lots of reasons to hate SUVs. They're gas guzzlers, they're expensive, their size is utterly pointless and excessive in most suburban and urban terrain. Still, most SUV owners cling to one important justification for their purchase: SUVs are safe.

SUVs do feel safer than cars. You're sitting up high and you can see more of the road. Presumably, you can anticipate accidents better or see a toddler run out into the street sooner. SUVs have four-wheel drive which most people (erroneously) believe helps on slick roads during rain or snowstorms. Most important, SUVs are big. They have strong, bulky fronts that are sure to protect you in a head-on collision. They're the biggest things around (though with the release of the new Hummer, those Cherokees sure do look small), and so concerned parents buy one for the family and insist that a teenager's first car be an SUV, too. Most people don't need all that space for running errands around town, and $60,000 is a big chunk of change, but, they rationalize, the SUV's well-padded mass is necessary to protect their family from the other nuts on the road.

It might come as a surprise to many Americans that most of these beliefs are myths. But according to Keith Bradsher, that's just what they are. In "High and Mighty: SUVs, the World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way," Bradsher, former Detroit bureau chief of the New York Times, argues that SUVs pose considerable danger to American drivers. Not only are the vehicles more prone to deadly rollovers, but there's the added problem that SUV owners typically don't care what their trucks might do to another driver in an accident, a lack of concern that the auto industry has successfully exploited in its marketing campaigns.

"High and Mighty" should have the same impact that Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed" did in 1965 -- either by forcing automakers to comply with stricter safety and fuel economy standards or by dissuading Americans from buying the vehicles. Concerns about the effects of America's SUV-spiked gas consumption on the environment and the nation's dependence on Mideast oil have prompted further protests. But, based on the evidence that Bradsher provides, it seems unlikely that consumers will suddenly turn to sedans and minivans.

Bradsher recently dropped by Salon's New York office to talk about why SUVs kill and injure people differently than cars, how SUVs make us dependent on foreign oil and why the most terrifying thing you can do with an SUV is give it to a teenager.

What kind of people buy SUVs according to the auto industry's own research?

The auto industry has done a lot of research about who buys SUVs and why. What they've found is that people who buy SUVs tend to be people who are especially interested in how other people see them. They are more interested in their image than even practicality. That's how you end up with people choosing a vehicle that has a fairly high floor which makes it harder for the elderly to get in or to load and unload kids. A minivan is much more practical in many ways, and yet you find that people choose these SUVs, particularly if they are self-oriented -- that's the term among the market researchers.

Which is a nicer way of saying?


How do they market to these types of people?

The marketing for sport utility vehicles often emphasizes that these are aggressive, even intimidating vehicles. You see ads like the one for the Cadillac Escalade. It says, "Yield," in inch-high letters across the middle of the page. Above it you see an Escalade and it's shot from 2 feet off the ground and 5 feet in front of it. It's hurtling down toward you. Underneath the word "yield" it says, "It's good to be the Cadillac."

Of course, it's a rather cynical and self-centered view of the world to think it's good to be the Cadillac if you're clobbering the other guy in the process.

All this has made me wonder: At this point we have very safe, very efficient cars -- like Volvos, for example. I'm imagining an SUV buyer and they're wealthy and so they can choose between an SUV and, say, a Mercedes. Why are they passing up these alternatives that are now efficient and safe and pretty and everything else?

A lot of it is image. The large cars don't have the cool image that an SUV does.

Do stars and politicians have a lot to do with that?

Yes, you see lots of Hollywood stars driving these big, imposing SUVs to the point that the Oscars look like an off-road rally. Actually, it does help if you're driving through a crowd a foot at a time -- all your fans and paparazzi can see you up in your SUV. The politicians like them because it's not usually a good idea for a politician to be driving a Mercedes or a Volvo; they've tended to go for the more macho, man-of-the-people image that SUVs retained despite their steep price tags.

At this point, though, it seems as if SUVs are sneered at and joked about. You referred to a Randy Cohen ("The Ethicist") column in the New York Times magazine. Cohen completely attacked a letter writer who was asking about whether he should drive an SUV. I'm sure the New York Times magazine is read by a lot of SUV drivers. Do you think this general negative attitude will eventually penetrate?

It sure hasn't yet. SUVs are still rising in sales. The fact is that to some extent SUVs create their own demand. They are so tall and bulky and menacing-looking that other people feel like they need to be in an SUV. They can't see down the road anymore because the big tall vehicles are blocking the way; they can't see around them; it's getting harder to back out of a parking space; the headlights are absolutely blinding at night.

Even if the sales were to level off, you would see far more SUVs on the road five to 10 years from now. The reason is that right now pickup-based SUVs are about 19 percent of the new vehicle market and then another 8 percent of the market are these car-based or crossover SUVs. So 27 percent of the market is SUVs. Only 2 or 3 percent of the vehicles scrapped each year are SUVs. As long as those two are mismatched, you're going to see a rising percentage of all the vehicles on the road being SUVs. SUVs are rising by nearly a full percentage point per year, which in automotive terms is huge. To do it over 10 years really makes a difference in the appearance of the American road.

You basically say that an SUV is just a pickup truck with a lot of fancy trimming. Can you explain? What exactly is an SUV?

The SUV evolved from pickup trucks. In fact, the first SUV was the Suburban, way back in 1935. GM didn't even keep the records of the development of that first Suburban. Chevy didn't keep them either. Why? Because at the time, it was very much viewed as simply another variation on a Chevy pickup. SUVs, until very recently with the advent of crossover utility vehicles, tended to be a pickup with a longer passenger compartment and an extra couple rows of seats bolted onto an existing previously designed underbody.

And are they relatively inexpensive to make?

SUVs are very inexpensive to make. It's not like building a car where you've got to get all these pieces to fit together just right. SUVs are built the way cars were actually made through the '50s and '60s. Then, as cars became more sophisticated and people demanded better performance as well as better gas mileage, the cars moved toward a unitized body architecture design in which all of the pieces fit together and formed more of a lattice.

By contrast, it's very cheap to simply bolt different variations of passenger compartments on top of a very simple ladder-frame underbody, which is what you get from pickup trucks. It is enormously profitable. You're taking a $20,000 work truck, you're adding several thousand dollars' worth of extra seats and a longer passenger compartment, you're adding several thousand dollars' worth of chrome and extra sound insulation and you're selling it for $50,000.

That's where the auto industry gets almost all of its profits. As a result, I do say in the book that you need to be a little careful about how quickly you change the SUV market. This is an underpinning of the United States economy comparable to the Internet or the software industry.

You pointed out that this was an underreported aspect of the 1990s boom economy: The auto industry totally blossomed, and because of the SUV.

Exactly. People need to remember that GM and Ford each have seven times the sales of the Microsoft Corp. GM and Ford are each 1 percent or more of the U.S. economy. Their domestic operations alone are each bigger than the entire worldwide operations of the entire American airline industry. They're bigger than AT&T plus Microsoft plus IBM. These are the cornerstones of the American economy, and because of the success of the SUVs in the 1990s, they were able to continue paying very generous labor contracts to the United Auto Workers union, which spread that prosperity rather broadly through the upper Midwest. As I say in the book, the median home prices in Detroit rose three times as fast as the national average through the 1990s.

If they were forced to change some of the things that are wrong -- or comply with some federal regulations that you think they should be complying with -- would it really affect their profits that much?

Two questions there. 1) How did they get this way? American Motors bought Jeep in 1970, then struggled to meet the new federal safety and environmental regulations that were taking effect. In 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to label Jeeps as nonpassenger vehicles because otherwise American Motors was going to have to stop selling them. Nonpassenger vehicles, or trucks, didn't have to meet the same air pollution standards, and American Motors just didn't have the engineering capability to build catalytic converters of its own. So rather than have the demise of American Motors be blamed on the EPA, or on the Clean Air Act, the EPA said, "OK, they're nonpassenger vehicles." SUVs have been regulated as trucks ever since. The same goes for the safety regulations and the fuel economy regulations.

How difficult would it be to comply now with car standards as opposed to truck standards?

That varies very much from regulation to regulation. Some of the regulations would not be that tough. For example, the Clinton administration in December 1999 ordered that SUVs meet the same air pollution standards as cars by 2009 model year. Right now, SUVs pollute five and a half times as much per mile as the cars. Brake standards are becoming a little more stringent. Things like rollover protection ... it would cost somewhat more to strengthen the roofs and also you would have to lower the center of gravity of SUVs to make them less rollover prone. You might also put in a lot of this anti-rollover technology; that tends to add maybe $500 to $1,000 per vehicle.

Anti-rollover technology?

You've got sensors now, which are unfortunately only on a handful of models, which is absurd, but they actually detect tilt in the vehicle and apply the brake to one wheel. That can reduce the likelihood of rollover. But you're still going to flip over if you're hitting a guardrail and you're too tall for the guardrail.

The biggest, toughest rule of all, and the one that has really allowed the SUVs to flourish, is the fuel economy standard. That's a really tough one to fix. There are things the automakers could do to improve the fuel economy of their SUVs. They have not invested in the engine technology; right now, most cars have four valves per cylinder and a lot of the SUVs don't. There are steps that can't readily be taken overnight but over five or seven or 10 or 12 years, you could bring SUVs up to the current level of fuel economy for cars.

My impression is that they really haven't been under that much pressure to make some of these changes.

No, they haven't. Among other things, the auto industry has been able to avoid some of the rules simply by making the vehicles bigger. If you make an SUV big enough, it qualifies for lenient air pollution rules, and if you make it really large, like the larger Suburbans or the Hummers or the Ford Excursions, they're exempt from fuel economy standards entirely. That's how you get these Excursions lumbering along at eight or 10 miles to the gallon.

Is that why they keep getting bigger? Or is it the demand?

It's both. There's another advantage for the full-size SUVs. If you get a vehicle that weighs more than 6,000 pounds when fully loaded, then it is subject to more lenient environmental rules and it can be written off against your taxes. It's a big loophole in the American tax code. If you're a realtor and you buy a luxury car, you can only write off the first $17,500 of its value against your taxes and only over five years. That's a pretty limited deduction if you're buying a $50,000 car. If you buy a $50,000 or $75,000 luxury SUV that's over 6,000 gross vehicle weight, you write off the whole thing. It's a rule written for farmers to write off farm equipment, but any light truck qualifies and all these SUVs do. It's an example of how the federal government, with lots of lobbying from the auto industry, has tilted the playing field against cars and in favor of less safe, less efficient, more polluting vehicles like the SUV.

And there are many reasons why the government doesn't want to mess with the auto industry, and it's not just campaign contributions.

Well, it's votes. This is a very important industry to what has really become the most politically important part of the country. The battleground for the 2000 election, and in fact for most of the elections of the last 40 years, tends to be decided by who can win Michigan, Ohio and to some extent Pennsylvania. Michigan and Ohio are really states where your views on autos count. Your views on fuel economy count.

Bill Clinton endorsed much higher fuel economy standards with Al Gore early in the campaign in 1992. And he was battered for it with TV ads in Michigan and Ohio. On a visit to Michigan in August of 1992 he declared that he would pursue whatever was feasible and would help the industry come up with something feasible. What that turned into was no increase in fuel economy standards during the Clinton administration and something on the order of a billion dollars plus in subsidies to the industry to do research on better fuel-efficient technologies. Did any of that improve actual fuel efficiency? No. It allowed the automakers to make ever more powerful vehicles, ever-heavier vehicles and still meet the same fuel economy standards.

Let's go back to rollovers and this myth of SUV safety. It will probably come as a surprise that you say that they are not safer than cars.

As a class there is no question that SUVs are less safe in terms of rollovers than cars are. If you look at the federal government's rollover ratings, there are no pickup-based SUVs that get more than three stars on a scale of one to five. Full-size cars get five stars, minivans get four stars.

They partially make up the difference by killing the other guy in vehicle-to-vehicle crashes, but they don't do well enough in vehicle-to-vehicle crashes to offset the rollovers. People have a myth about the rollovers, which makes matters worse. Everyone thinks that rollovers happen to bad drivers and no one thinks he is a bad driver. And so as a result people underestimate the risk that they are going to make a mistake that results in a rollover. They don't understand that 90 percent of rollovers occur not because somebody's zig-zagging on a paved road but because the vehicle was tripped -- whether by striking a guardrail or a curb or a low-riding vehicle.

And that brings me to the next one, which is the myth of four-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive helps you accelerate on slick surfaces but that's about it. But it really doesn't help you to control your car better? I was pretty shocked about that.

And you didn't know that four-wheel drive doesn't help you brake?

Nope. Well, I just had the impression that four-wheel drive was better all around.

You are an excellent example. There are plenty of people in Detroit who say the customers must know about this stuff, but they don't. It's not true [that four-wheel drive aids braking], and the safety engineers acknowledge that that's a problem. In fact, the car driver who goes slipping and sliding down the road knows that he's having trouble, that the traction isn't great. The SUV driver, as long as he's accelerating, has no problem. But he doesn't know that he's not going to be able to stop until he tries to hit the brakes -- and that's a real recipe for trouble. It's a vehicle that fosters overconfidence.

My friend reads car magazines religiously -- I thought he knew everything about cars -- and he always told me that four-wheel drive helps in the rain.

That's exactly it! I criticize the car magazines in my book. Car magazines should be telling people that you can't drive an SUV the way you drive a car. They should be telling people that four-wheel drive does not help you stop, it only helps you go faster. People don't understand that.

People are thinking about their own safety when they buy an SUV. But what you point out is that SUVs actually kill more people who aren't in SUVs and kill them differently. Can you explain why?

SUVs are very dangerous to other motorists because they are particularly likely to slide over the bumpers and doorsills of the cars and into the passenger compartments. [Car manufacturers] have begun addressing this over the last two or three years -- three-quarters of the SUVs on the market have been modified. They've mainly done it by installing hollow steel bars below and behind the bumper. They're called Bradsher bars actually. These bars are designed to prevent the SUV from going into the passenger compartment.

The problem is that you still have hoods that are too high on these SUVs, and in a side impact, the taller the hood, the more likely it is to catch somebody in the head or in the neck in a car. I describe one very sad case in the book of somebody that was hit in the head by a Land Rover that struck her from the side while she was in a midsize sedan.

Someone might argue that this problem is going to persist regardless of what we do about SUVs. We have other kinds of trucks on the road, and there are always going to be bigger Mercedes and smaller sports cars. What makes it particularly terrible with SUVs? Because there are so many?

Exactly. Nothing is a serious problem if it's in small enough numbers. It's different when you have 10 percent of the vehicle fleet that is designed in a way that is fundamentally incompatible with the cars that are already out there.

Didn't Mercedes modify its truck almost immediately after it did a study?

Mercedes was the only automaker that was paying attention to this problem in the mid-'90s. There was a German motoring group that did some crash tests. For example, they crashed the Nissan Patrol, a full-size SUV, into the Volkswagen Golf. The Nissan Patrol leaped right over the hood of the Golf in a head-on impact and smashed into the passenger compartment. It did more damage to the dummy in the Golf than anything this motoring association had seen in any of its crash tests before. The same crash killed the dummy in the Nissan Patrol too. Why? Because the front end of the Golf got under the Patrol and drove the steering column up and impaled the driver.

The folks at Mercedes were more concerned about this than the American automakers because they knew that they also faced a more concerned public in Europe. They then designed their SUV with a low bumper. However, that bumper -- according to later tests that have since been done -- is not enough. Bumpers turn into aluminum foil in crashes above 10 miles an hour.

Is there any situation where it is safer to be in an SUV? For example, if an oncoming car were to hit you in your SUV?

Yes, there are situations in which it is safer for the SUV occupant to be in the SUV. The sad part is that people only think about those incidents. If you are in a head-on collision between a small car and a large SUV you're going to come out the worst in the small car. However, the small car is much more able to avoid the crash in the first place. Small cars can stop a lot faster, small cars can swerve a lot better. The top speed at which you can swerve into the lane on your right and then get back in your original lane tends to be a good 8 or 10 MPH lower in an SUV than it is in a car.

SUV buyers in many cases seem to be people who seem to have limited confidence in their driving skills and think, Well, if I'm going to be in a crash anyway, then I want to be in a tank. If you have any confidence in your driving ability, then you should be thinking that you'd rather avoid getting in a crash in the first place. Particularly since you can still get badly hurt in an SUV anyway. Heaven help you if you roll over. They're less than 2 percent of all crashes, but they're a quarter of all traffic deaths and three-quarters of the accidents that result in paralysis.

A lot of people think that when they give their child a first car, they want their kid in the biggest, strongest thing possible.

That is the most terrifying part of all. It really is. The single most terrifying safety issue with SUVs is SUVs falling into the hands of teens. It's so sad for these teens to get paralyzed. The young drivers are the ones who are most likely to make the errors of inexperience like hitting a curb. Yes, you can roll over a Corvette if you slide it into a curb fast enough and hard enough, but you're much less likely to do so. Same with a guardrail. Same with getting a vehicle onto the shoulder. The SUVs are much less forgiving of error. Teens make the most driver errors, and those are particularly likely to be errors that are single-vehicle accidents.

The automakers' own safety people don't recommend SUVs for teens. They recommend midsize to large cars. Anybody who really loves their kid should be also telling them to avoid getting into SUVs driven by friends, especially at night.

Would it be fair to say that the auto industry is really pulling the wool over people's eyes? Are they completely aware that these cars are unsafe and they're just enjoying their boom?

I wouldn't go that far, but I think that the auto industry was very late and slow in doing something about the safety problems of SUVs. The auto industry's efforts to educate consumers have been appallingly inadequate. Ford bought the nation's leading chain of private driving schools, Top Driver, more than two years ago. At the time they said they were going to design a course that will be a free course for anybody who buys a Ford SUV, and that course would teach people how to drive an SUV. You can't drive an SUV the way you drive a car. Unfortunately, the legal concerns at Ford have meant that writing this program has been a really slow process. They are still not telling people that you can't drive an SUV like a car. The ads are still promoting this myth of SUV safety.

For example, the new Hummer ads: "Teach cabbies some respect." What message is that? It's a fake New Yorker cartoon with somebody grinning fiendishly at the wheel of his Hummer. A taxicab is on each side with taxi drivers looking up sideways in terror at that SUV. You shouldn't be using your vehicle to teach cabbies or anybody else respect.

Do you think Hummers are going to be popular?

They already are.

How much do they cost?

$50,000 for the Hummer H2, $100,000 for the original models that are just modified military Humvees. GM plans to sell nearly as many of them each year as they sell Cadillacs. This is the first new GM division since Saturn. It says something about where our country has gone that in the late '80s we were so concerned about energy conservation and the environment that we came out with a division like Saturn dedicated to both. And now we come up with this sort of paramilitary vehicle that is a real menace to other motorists. GM says it will be marketed most heavily in Manhattan and Los Angeles because those are the markets that have the most households with incomes over $150,000. They're not marketing this for people in Montana.

What will they do to traffic in some place in Manhattan?

They will make it ever harder to see where you're going. They'll make it ever more difficult to back out of parking spaces. One advantage at least in Manhattan is that you won't have blinding headlights coming in your direction because so many of the roads are one way.

The overall death rate for full-size SUVs -- Suburbans, Expeditions, Navigators -- is 8 percent higher than the death rate in full-size cars and minivans. We could be safer if we stuck to full-size cars and minivans, and we certainly could make everybody else safer. You really don't want to be hit by a Hummer H2 when you're in a car.

SUVs are also gas guzzlers. Arianna Huffington brought this up in a recent column. If we do go to war against Iraq, could it affect the popularity of the SUV?

I'm not holding my breath. In the last Persian Gulf war, SUV sales were up. The Explorer and Blazer had just come out, which would naturally explain good sales, but they did extremely well even as gas prices soared. The high-income families who are the main market for SUVs tend not to worry about gas prices. Fuel economy is not a big concern for new vehicle buyers these days. That's particularly true because middle-class families increasingly buy these very reliable used vehicles that Detroit is now making. And so what ends up in the nation's vehicle fleet is increasingly decided by the top 20 or 30 percent of the income distribution, which in many cases could care less about gas prices.

Overall, our gas consumption is still rising. I was in Osaka, Japan, two weeks ago and I covered the OPEC oil meeting for the New York Times. There are two things that OPEC is excited about these days -- two bright spots on an otherwise dismal horizon. 1) The Chinese economy is growing 7 or 8 percent per year and they're trying to switch from coal to oil. 2) American gasoline consumption. The secretary general of OPEC said that it's a real growth area for them. He attributed it partly to the fact that people are driving instead of flying after Sept. 11. But the other factor is that the average fuel economy of new vehicles going on the nation's roads has been declining steadily since 1987 and '88. It's been declining because even though the technology for individual models has improved their fuel economy, we're switching so many people from cars to SUVs, and SUVs get a low gas mileage average.

Where is the environmental movement on this now?

They are fighting very hard on SUVs. The movement has tried very hard to raise fuel economy requirements for SUVs; they successfully lobbied the EPA in 1999 to require that SUVs meet the same standards as cars. That will happen by 2009. They are very much paying attention to SUVs now. They were somewhat late on the uptake, but they -- like everybody, including the auto industry -- didn't realize just how big this boom would become.

The auto industry was surprised in the 1970s that people liked them so much, right?

Everyone was surprised, even through the 1990s. I can remember, when I was sent out to Detroit at the end of 1995, one of my editors said we should keep an eye out for the peak in the SUV boom because any long-term trend you would think would come to a peak. But they just kept going up and up.

To some extent, it's because SUVs create their own demand. There's an economic theory called network externalities, which is the idea that you'll get a benefit from using what other people are using even if it's not a better product. In this case, if you drive an SUV, you can still see something on the road [because you can see better around all the other SUVs, whereas in a car you are at a disadvantage]. But it's not a better product.

Do you do expect them to get more and more popular?

The sheer number of models and the sheer number of factories that have been converted to SUV production guarantees that they will be an enormous part of the market. I do know that the proportion of registered vehicles in the U.S. on the nation's road that are SUVs is going to go up dramatically. There's not a lot of old SUVs out there to scrap but there are a lot of old cars out there to scrap.

We have barely seen the beginnings of the SUV boom. They will become more than twice as common on the nation's roads -- guaranteed -- within five or 10 years.

Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

MORE FROM Suzy Hansen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books