Sports Utility Vehicles

The automobile industry in the US and elsewhere in the world has spent a significant amount of their marketing budgets to promote the sale of Sports Utility Vehicles. They promote the benefits of these vehicles as tools capable of conquering the toughest environment whilst ensuring the safety of its owners. Yet few have acknowledge the real cost of these vehicles. The purpose of this paper is to discuss that cost in further depth. Our intention, through research, is to analyze the adverse effect that these vehicles have in terms of the environment, health and safety. As a result, we will discover the real cost of SUV power and observe measures that can be taken to address these problems.

Sports Utility Vehicles: The real cost of power.

Sport Utility Vehicles have become very popular vehicles over recent years, and this popularity has increased since the 1980’s. They have become a “preeminent symbol of American popular culture” (David Goewey 113). They are powerful vehicles, which also cost a lot to run. The SUV, usually sold with four-wheeled drive, is a modern phenomenon. It is a hybrid vehicle, which has all the comforts of a luxury car linked with the four-wheel qualities of a light truck. Their reputed ability to be able to traverse natural terrains with safety and power has found favor with the consumers, and manufacturers of these vehicles have been quick to exploit these reasons to their own advantage. The Jeep promotional material is a typical representation of this ethos (see Jeep.com, opening page), with their SUVs being shown against a variety of natural backgrounds such as mountains, deserts, and rugged water environments.

In this report, we ask the question are these vehicles safe and environmentally friendly? The result of our research concludes that these vehicles extract a serious cost in terms of health and safety and upon the environment.

The success of the automobile industry’s promotional campaigns has led to a steady increase in the sale of SUV’s over the past two decades. Despite the projection of them being rugged off-road vehicles, only around 10% ever fulfill that purpose (Keith Bradsher, sec 1:1). Another interesting fact is that, as David Goewey (118) reports, female consumers now account for 40% of SUV’s sales. Because of this popularity, these vehicles have attracted a considerable amount of research attention. Most of this has concentrated upon two aspects. The first is the safety aspect of the SUV in terms of their performance in accidents. The second aspect is their environmental cost, where many argue that fuel consumption and emission have a damaging effect.

The ethos of many consumers when purchasing their vehicles is the safety element. In general terms consumers reach the decision to purchase an SUV upon the reasoning of self-interest, in other words how safe their automobile is for themselves and their family. Much of this perception results from the psychology of the drivers themselves. A report in the New Yorker (Malcolm Gladwell para 3) suggests that the SUV explosion has been brought about by a change in the way that drivers perceive danger, with the emphasis now being on the inevitability rather than the avoidability of accidents. The report quotes Stephen Popiel, a vice-president of a market research firm in the automobile industry, who says that most consumers’ thoughts are that, “if I were to take this vehicle and drive it into this brick wall, the more metal there is in front of me the better off I’ll be.”(Gladwell, para 2) Few would consciously consider the safety element as it may affect other road users, including pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicle drivers. The evidence, as shown in numerous researches carried out on the subject, proves that this is not the case. In addition, it shows that SUV’s can present a serious safety hazard to other road users as well as to those who use the vehicles.

As part of the research for Gladwell’s article (Gladwell para 2), he cites that a SUV (Chevrolet Trailblazer) was compared in tests against a Porsche Boxster in two tests. The first was an obstacle test, with cones representing a variety of other road users. In the SUV, traveling at thirty-miles an hour the reporter struggled to complete the tests, and knocked down a number of the obstructions as well as creating difficult conditions inside the vehicle with passengers being thrown around. In a real life scenario, it would have resulted in some injuries, if not fatalities. The instructor explained, “That’s what the extra weight that S.U.V.s have tends to do.   It pulls you in the wrong direction.” An identical driver in the Boxster, at a speed of fifty miles an hour, resulted in all the obstacles being avoided and a smooth drive. In a second test, the stopping distances of the two vehicles were compared. Both were tested for emergency stops from sixty miles an hour. The results were that it took the Trailblazer around 150 feet to come to a halt, against the Boxster’s 124. In real traffic terms, the difference represents around two car lengths. The results are supported by other research and support the validity of safety concerns.

Further research has concentrated upon other aspects of the results of accidents and safety. A report by Lefler and Gabler (p.295-304), concentrated on the fatality rates with pedestrians and showed that these doubled in the case of an accident involving an SUV when compared with an ordinary passenger car. Other studies confirm these findings. Although the weight of the vehicle is a contributory factor in these findings, it was found that the major reasons for the fatality increase was due to the design difference between the two types of vehicles. Being lower to the ground and with a more curved front, the passenger car impacted upon the pedestrian at lower leg level, therefore causing less immediate damage to a persons mid regions. The first point of impact with a SUV would be at mid region level, resulting in a higher incidence of damage that could be fatal. Therefore, the SUV does pose an increased safety risk.

A similar increase in the cost of human damage can be seen where the other party in the accident is in a vehicle. In Keith Bradsher’s (2004) book on the subject, he covers various research related to the subject of accidents involving two or more vehicles. The results show that there would be a significantly higher incidence of fatalities in a passenger car/SUV accident than if two passenger cars were involved. In fact, research has shown that in a two-passenger car accident there was almost half the number of fatalities than if two SUV’s were involved with a similar incident.

There have also been a number of researches conducted into the inherent safety of the SUV vehicle itself. The most significant of these have been targeted at the rollover inclination of an SUV. As we identified recently in the test that was undertaken for the Commerce and Culture (Malcolm Gladwell para 2) article, the stability of these vehicles at relatively low speeds, when encountering driving obstacles was found to be questionable. The problem is that as these speeds increase, so does the instability levels, and in the event of a sharp response to a hazard, be that because of physical obstacles or weather conditions, it increases the likelihood of the vehicle rolling over.

In addition to safety concerns, the other area of SUV proliferation of ownership that is causing considerable concern is their environmental impact. Due to the format of the US automobile legislation, SUVs are classed as light trucks. Therefore, they are not subjected to the same strict levels of fuel consumptions and emissions as the passenger car. Manufacturers of these vehicles have taken advantage of this more relaxed level of regulation. Sinantha Songseng (2004) research paper shows that average automobile fuel consumption in the US dropped to 23.8 miles per gallon in 1999, which set the lowest recorded level for nearly twenty years. This coincided with the significant increase in the sale of SUV’s and their much lower fuel economy at 20.3 mpg, with many recording well below this level. This means that considerably more natural gas and petroleum products are being used to sustain these vehicles. Records show that SUV’s and light vehicles is accounting for 40% of US oil consumption. (Songseng par 2)

Furthermore, as the report continues, there is the additional environmental issue in respect of the SUV emission levels. Because of loopholes within the Clean Air Act, these vehicles are legally allowed to emit “30% more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75% more nitrogen oxides than passenger cars.” (Songseng par 3) This creates problems in two areas. Firstly, there is the effect that this has on the health of the population. These emissions in built up areas, reacting with the sun’s rays, can create smog conditions at ground levels. This can lead to breathing difficulties and damage human lungs. In the report Sinantha Songseng reported the results of a study carried out by Loma Linda University in 1991, which showed that various cancer incidences had risen by 37% increase, with lung cancers recording a 72% increase. The results were from a survey of women who had resided for ten years in cities that had recorded smog conditions on at least 42 days annually.

Equally important is the issue of environmental damage, in particular the effect that carbon dioxide emissions, a by-product of motor fuel consumption, are having on global warming. Global warming is reported to be affecting weather conditions, including temperatures, rises in sea levels and increasing the risks of health problems and natural disasters.

The following table shows the dramatic rise in the US carbon dioxide emissions in the eight years to 1998.
Source of Data: Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy

reported in Sinantha Sonseng (2000)

 

The rise in the number of SUV’s has contributed significantly to this rise in emissions, contributing an additional 717 million metric tones of carbon dioxide emissions. This is around three times as much as the emissions from a standard sized passenger car. (Songseng par 4)

 

All of the research that has been studied in the preparation of this report, together with the evidence seen, confirms that SUV’s are having a significant detrimental impact on both health and safety issues and the environment.

This research has not taken into account the financial costs of these problems.

However, it is apparent from the research that they need to be addressed. This is the responsibility of all of those involved with this phenomenon, including the governments, manufacturers, consumer and other organizations.

The government has made some efforts in this respect. In his letter to the major manufacturers, Hardy Myers (2003), then Attorney General, admonished them for their advertising methods and warned that the “could be in violation of [the individual states] consumer protection laws.”(Myers letter 2003) He further warned that their advertising, similar to that seen in the Jeep (2006) promotions, failed to adequately address issues of safety. However, in terms of the environment, the government could take further steps to improve the situation by reclassifying these vehicles with more stringent emission controls. The Songseng (2000 par 2) research confirmed that there is the technology in place to enable compliance with such changes.

Manufacturers have a major responsibility in these areas. They need to respond positively to the advice and warnings being issued by governments and other researches in terms of safety. This can be achieved by changing the tone of promotional campaigns, emphasizing the different driving attitudes and experienced attributable to an SUV, and seeking design changes that would make their vehicles safer. In addition, there is an urgent need to utilize the available technology to significantly reduce the environmental impact of SUV’s. Although some small steps have been taken in this direction, it is not enough and well below their capacity to do so.

There is also a need to educate consumers. In addition to making the information more publicly available, the attitude of the consumer needs to be altered so that they approached their decision on purchasing a SUV based upon knowledge of the risk, awareness of the environmental impact and, based upon this, would use logical reasoning in that choice. In this situation, they would be fully aware of the damage these vehicles can do to other road users as well as the environment.

There is little doubt that an SUV represents at present a vision of protection and power in the minds of the consumer who makes the purchase. What is less obvious to them and to a certain extent is being denied to them, are the full facts regarding the cost of that power.

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