The Attack on SUVs

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It’s been building for some time now, the left-puritan hatred of the Sport Utility Vehicle. To them, it represents a repudiation of everything they’ve worked for over decades. They have done their darndest to regulate large cars out of existence, on grounds that they use too much gas, pollute the environment, encourage a sense of private power, promote large families, and provide more comfort than anyone outside a DC bureaucracy should be permitted to enjoy.

But the heroic American consumer, impervious to the agitations of the regulatory class, has worked through the capitalist process to make the SUV one of the most popular forms of transportation in America. Through emissions regulations, the regulators may have suppressed the grand station wagon of old, but through a loophole in the law, the SUV and the minivan came to replace it.

Big, comfy, safe, and roomy, the SUV is now seen around the world as the very embodiment of the glory of living in America. In Italy and Japan, where gas prices are double the US’s, consumers are forced to squish themselves in tiny death traps, but ask anyone in any country what he really wants to drive, and he’ll tell you: a huge American road machine. Not even the "gas guzzlers" of old will do; only the magnificent machines of today that bypass all standards of 1970s-style "fuel economy."

But the conspiracy to crack down on large cars and trucks is alive and growing. Sometimes it takes surprising turns, as in the new rhetoric about the evils of "rollover risk." According to the New York Times, the Department of Transportation has proposed to rank all cars according to the likelihood that they will roll over in a crash. Brandishing the statistic that "rollovers" kill 10,000 people a year (another silent holocaust! and a memorable round number to boot!), the government proposes to collect and disseminate data to protect you from being crushed by steel.

Actually, the data are misleading. You might have the impression that a "rollover" means that when you are casually turning the corner, the car tips over and you die. In fact, it takes an extremely tricky course going at high speeds to accomplish this, and death by rollover quite often consists of a guy not wearing his seatbelt being flung out of his car during an accident; the car then rolls over and crushes the poor fellow. It stands to reason that the taller the vehicle, and the narrower the base, the higher the center of gravity and the more likely a rollover is going to be. And, you guessed it, it turns out that most deaths from rollovers occur in SUVs.

The goal of the government is to undermine the widely held view that the SUV is safer than a small car. But the data only look at part of the overall safety package. Balance out the risk of a rollover with the overall likelihood of death from crashes (front, side, and rear), and SUVs come out pretty well, exactly as drivers intuit. Moreover, there’s not exactly a conspiracy of silence on all this. All information on car safety is available for anyone these days, immediately accessible through such wonderful sites as Crashtest.com. The government can’t add anything to this public information but more confusion.

But why would the Department of Transportation want us to focus on rollover questions to the exclusion of other risks? To demonize SUVs of course. As the New York Times reveals, studies have found that "cars generally get five stars, the highest rating, or four; minivans get two or three; sport utilities, one to three, and pickups, one to four."

It also turns out that this anti-SUV initiative is entirely a Clinton administration affair. The DoT has been trying to design a measure of rollover risk since 1994, exactly the time when SUVs became hugely popular.

So there you have it: scare the dickens out of consumers so they will buy cars instead of SUVs, and only later turn your guns on regular cars and force everyone to take government-approved public transit. These types will do anything to make the consumer less happy and to generally muck up the system whereby people can get what they want in a market economy.

The government, as usual, is working in league with a myriad of nominally private groups, such as the SUV Anti-Fan Club, which try to whip up hysteria about rollovers. This particular site also makes claims such as: "Many SUV owners want to look like they are the u2018outdoor’ type. They are driving these beasts around that pollute the environment and annoy the rest of us on the road just for the sake of image." This intolerant, prejudicial group wants a special tax placed on anyone who drives SUVs.

The "opposition" comes from such groups as the Coalition for Vehicle Choice. In a Congressional testimony some years ago, a spokesman for the group decried the user-fee idea as a tax in disguise. Instead, she proposed a new fee on license tags that will generate revenue for "wildlife and conservation programs." Of course, this is a tax too! As to the appalling sell-out of Ford Motor Co., with its craven apology for making large vehicles, and you have to wonder: with friends like this, who needs enemies?

The good point that the Coalition makes again and again, however, is entirely lost on the bureaucrats. If SUVs and other light trucks were banned, no lives would be saved. Quite the opposite. The roads would again become even more unsafe, as small cars competed with huge trucks (no attempt to ban them, thanks to the truckers’ union lobby) for road space. As a general rule, the larger the vehicle, the safer it is to drive.

As the government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards have increased over the years, the roads have become, on the margin, more unsafe than they otherwise would have been. Combined with the huge error of airbag mandates, and the failure of the government’s roads to protect driver safety, government deserves much of the blame for highway deaths.

But there’s another, more perplexing, point operating here. The Department of Transportation seems to think that safety, applied in a propagandistic way in this one narrow area, is all that matters, and that consumers have no legitimate demand for image, comfort, or simply fashion. In fact, these are important goods to consumers, who should be allowed the freedom to make their own choices between the risk-convenience (or fashion or whatever) tradeoff.

Making such choices is the very essence of freedom. Some people prefer speed, while others put a premium on safety. Some prefer space and size and are willing to pay the price in lower gas mileage. That is their right, and who really believes that government is able to supplant those choices with wiser ones of the bureaucrats’ making? As usual, all the excuses about safety, the environment, and the rest, are just excuses for control.

As the battle over the future of the SUV heats up, you can do your part by purchasing one immediately and driving it ostentatiously. Think of it as a form of civil disobedience. And always remember this: if the government had its way, the only vehicles left on the road would be its own SUVs — the military tanks — the better to control the civilian population.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site, LewRockwell.com.

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