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The myth of SUV safety

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"I bought an SUV because they’re safer." "I like to sit up high." "I need four-wheel-drive to get through the snow in the winter." "I hate minivans because of the image — people would think I was a ‘soccer mom.’" "I have dogs." How many times have you heard these justifications for buying a sport-utility vehicle?

Keith Bradsher’s excellent new book, High and Mighty: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way (Public Affairs, $28), demolishes these points one by one and convincingly demonstrates that these lumbering gas-guzzlers are a menace not only to the planet, but to the safety of everyone who comes near them (including their occupants).

Bradsher’s book couldn’t come at a better time. "After years of steadily gaining market share, the SUV can finally be crowned king of the American road," said analyst Lonnie Miller last year, pointing out that sport-utilities had become the most popular vehicle among women buyers (they gained that distinction with men in 2000). Four million SUVs were sold in 2002, with projected growth to 4.2 million by 2007.

Among the many revelations in Bradsher’s book, this one stands out: SUVs are not safer than cars. "SUV occupants die slightly more often than car occupants in crashes," he writes. "The occupant death rate in crashes per million SUVs on the road is 6-percent higher than the death rate per million cars." Further, SUV rollovers kill a thousand people a year who would not otherwise have died, and added air pollution caused by these vehicles is estimated to kill another 1,000 from respiratory ailments.

What’s more, SUVs are not particularly good in snow. (The four-wheel-drive is really only useful in accelerating without slipping, but it’s of no use at all in emergency stops, when it’s disengaged.) "I don’t consider four-wheel drive as a safety feature or as a safety-beneficial technology," says Volvo safety engineer Christer Gustafsson. And SUVs have terrible brakes for the most part, with long stopping distances that makes them poor performers in accident avoidance. Read my lips: Four-wheel drive is no help in braking. Another myth is that sitting up high makes you safer. Tall cars roll over more, and they also impede the view of drivers around you.

Don’t want to listen to me or Keith Bradsher about SUV safety? Jeffrey Runge, a Bush appointee as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, recently excoriated automakers at an industry conference for not making these road hogs safer. He said he wouldn’t allow his family to ride in an SUV "if they were the last vehicles on Earth."

The "I-need-the-space" argument also fails because SUVs provide no more seating room than mid-sized or large cars, and access and versatility are both bad. If you want space, buy a minivan. If the environment matters to you at all, be aware that big SUVs are allowed to emit up to 1.1 grams per mile of smog-producing nitrogen oxides, compared to 0.2 grams for cars. The history of SUVs avoiding environmental regulation, fully detailed by Bradsher, will make you cry.

And now, to make things worse, the Bush administration is proposing dramatic new tax write-offs for the largest SUVs. Where once first-year deductions were limited to $25,000, now they would soar to $75,000, allowing businesses to write off the entire cost of huge Hummers and Ford Excursions.

You don’t need an SUV! Want something safe and versatile that’s not a minivan? Consider the 26-mile-per-gallon Subaru Outback H6 3.0 VDC, a wagon with both four-wheel drive and a great technology called Vehicle Dynamics Control that helps to ensure stability — and keep the car in a straight line — under extreme conditions. I’m driving one this week and I’ve never felt safer. The McIntosh stereo is pretty cool, too.

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