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24 January 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Lording it over 4x4s
Are SUVs the new face of urban evil?

by Timandra Harkness

'We believe the Risen Lord Jesus cares about what we drive. Pollution from vehicles has a major impact on human health and the rest of God's creation. It contributes significantly to the threat of global warming. Our reliance on imported oil from unstable regions threatens peace and security. Obeying Jesus in our transportation choices is one of the great Christian obligations and opportunities of the twenty-first century.'

The website What Would Jesus Drive? originates in America's bible belt, and exhorts Christians to reduce their car use and to avoid sport utility vehicles (SUVs - better known in the UK as 'big 4x4s') for reasons of safety and environmental responsibility (1). Its campaign sits easily with the other crusades against this demonised category of vehicle. Wastemonsters (2) and the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s (3), both London-based campaigns, also focus on the dangers these vehicles apparently pose to occupants and other road users, and on the impact they have on the environment.

It's undeniable that bigger engines and heavier vehicles tend to use more fuel, but it's far from a black-and-white case. The Alliance's own website shows that fuel consumption figures for petrol 4x4s range from 12.2 to 23.2 miles per gallon (mpg), compared with a 1.8 litre Ford Mondeo at 25.4 mpg. Diesel models manage between 19.6 and 31.4 mpg, compared with a London taxi at 29 mpg - and taxis rate much worse for particulate emissions.

On the safety front, too, the SUV has been convicted and sentenced without full consideration of the evidence. True, figures from the US Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) show that SUV occupants are more likely to be killed by their vehicle rolling over. Around half of occupant deaths in SUVs involved a rollover, as opposed to around one in five of all cars. But the 'feeling' of safety that 4x4 drivers report does have some foundation in fact, with the IIHS study affirming that 'everything else being equal, lighter vehicles have higher occupant death rates' (4).

The flipside of this is that occupants of a lighter vehicle that is hit by an SUV are more likely to be injured and killed, though death rates both in SUVs and the vehicles they crash into have fallen significantly over the past 10 years. And let's not forget that in general, roads and cars are safer than they have ever been.

What of the threat to pedestrians? Research from the USA, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, shows that a pedestrian hit by a large SUV is twice as likely to die as one hit by a saloon car travelling at the same speed (5). This is related to the blunt geometry of the vehicle, rather than size and weight, as the pedestrian's head and chest, not their legs, are more likely to be hit in a first impact.

Again, though, more detailed research muddies the picture of pure satanic evil. Euro NCAP, the independent body that rates new cars for safety, gives a maximum of five stars for pedestrian safety, a measure tested by firing both adult and child headforms and bodyforms at the front of the test vehicle and measuring the results (6). Though most off-roaders score only one or two stars, in fact hardly any cars score more than two stars, and the Honda CR-V off-roader is one of the few with a three-star rating.

Now, before any outraged spiked readers email in to accuse me of being a Chelsea Mum who selfishly ferries little Freddie and Daisy to school in a gas-guzzling tank, let me declare my interest. I am in fact a childless Tooting-dweller who owns no car at all, and finds it a complete pain in the butt trying to squeeze my motorbike past these 4x4s in London traffic. They're wider than most cars and they're too high to see over in a jam. Personally, my life would be easier if they didn't exist.

Is there a new offence of visual bullying on the road?
But is that the point? Why should anyone have to justify their choice of vehicle to me? It's clear from the tone of the anti-4x4 campaigners that they have a sense of moral outrage quite unrelated to rational analysis. I caught part of a radio discussion on the issue and heard an anti challenged with the view that buses put out far more pollution per passenger than a private SUV. 'But buses aren't an example of conspicuous consumption', replied the self-righteous eschewer of big, ugly cars.

Interestingly, one angle the What Would Jesus Drive? website doesn't push is that SUV drivers are guilty of the sin of pride. Flaunting their wealth by driving big cars? Sitting higher up than cyclists and Smart-car drivers? And this from mothers, who ought to know better and be more nurturing of the planet and those around them. How dare they? Can't they follow the fine example of Our Lady, who meekly bowed her head and did what she was told?

The 'safety' page of the Alliance against Urban 4x4s website rails against what it calls a 'macho design aesthetic'. 'They also look aggressive and their size intimidates other road users, such as drivers of small cars, cyclists and pedestrians. Locking yourself away in a mobile fortress damages community spirit and actually encourages crime on the streets. London is not a militarised zone and we don't want it to look like one.' (7)

So - driving a big car encourages street crime and intimidates small cars, does it? Is there a new offence of visual bullying that was introduced into the highway code since I learned to drive? I only had to get behind the wheel of my mother's Vauxhall Corsa to know that small cars get pushed around on the road - no wonder women drivers prefer to be high up in a heftier car. But this complaint is less about safety than about social engineering, yearning for a nicer, less competitive world - presumably to be achieved by harassing drivers of whose vehicles you disapprove.

'What's Your Excuse?' ask the anti-SUV websites. Why should anyone have to make excuses for their choice of car? 'You don't need a big 4x4 in town', they cry. Arguably not. I also don't need an inside toilet. My mother's family managed without one for years. Think of the resources that were saved by millions of working-class people holding out as long as possible before heading out into the cold for a pee.

I personally don't want a 4x4, but I also don't want to live in a world where we're only meant to have what we 'need'. Forget what Jesus would drive: it's the secular puritans that frighten me.

Timandra Harkness is a freelance writer and the proud owner of a 600cc Suzuki bandit. See her website

(1) Resources, on the What Would Jesus Drive? website

(2) Wastemongers.org.uk website

(3) Alliance Against Urban 4x4s website

(4) Status Report (.pdf 242 KB), Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2 April 2003

(5) Cited in SUVs double pedestrians' risk of death, Paul Marks, New Scientist, 12 December 2003

(6) Large off-roaders, on the European New Car Assessment Programme website

(7) Safety information, on the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s website

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