Getting serious about the SUV

January 22, 2003

THE SUV has been taking a drubbing recently, some of it bordering on the silly. An evangelist from Pennsylvania suggests they're un-Christian; Arianna Huffington sponsors an ad campaign that claims they fuel terrorism.

These are amusing or intriguing or even thought-provoking notions, but not serious criticism. Hollywood stars can line up to denounce SUVs as much as they like, and it's mostly harmless fun.

There are, nonetheless, serious questions involving the sport utility vehicle. Two, in particular, have just come to the surface.

The first concerns safety. It has been known for some time that SUVs can cause considerable damage to regular cars when they collide. But a new government study shows that SUVs themselves are susceptible to rollover accidents, which are especially deadly.

Rollovers account for just 3 percent of all vehicle accidents, but cause 32 percent of fatalities. Last year, deaths in single-vehicle rollover accidents increased 22 percent over the year before; SUVs and pickups were responsible for most of the gain.

In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, someone in an SUV that rolls over is three times as likely to die as is someone in a regular car.

That is a sobering statistic. The NHTSA is considering new standards for SUVs aimed at reducing the risk of a rollover, as well as airbags to protect the head. The car manufacturers, predictably, are resisting these changes, arguing that the market should drive safety considerations, and not the government.

It's arguments like that one that give government regulation a good name.

The second serious SUV question comes direct from the White House.

The Bush administration wants to provide small businesses - accountants and real estate agents and the like - with huge new tax deductions on SUVs, as an economic stimulant.

These would not, under the current proposal, apply to normal cars - only to the big truck-body vehicles. A dentist could buy a Lincoln Navigator for fiftysomething thousand dollars and deduct the entire price, if it was business-related.

The idea is to give Detroit - already coming under pressure from the killjoys at the NHTSA, and elsewhere - a lift. SUVs, after all, are the industry's big money-makers. But to provide them with new public subsidies on such a scale is nothing short of appalling.

Critics of the vehicles are sure to use the safety issue to attack the tax-deduction plan - and with reason.

But they might, at the same time, take comfort from another recent development: New marketing surveys, carried out by the automakers themselves, show that young drivers find SUVs to be distinctly uncool. That, in the long run, will count for more than any number of high-minded arguments against them

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