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Riding High: Sport Utility Vehicles

July 30, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: On the NewsHour tonight: Why we love and hate our SUV’s; and a candidate’s conversation on health care. In our occasional series, “How We Live”, Ray Suarez looks at the lives Americans lead at home, at work, at play and tonight, on the road.

COMMERCIAL ACTOR: Try the overhand grip, it drives the women crazy.

RAY SUAREZ: SUV’s seem like the hottest new things on the road these days. But actually, SUV’s– Sport Utility Vehicles– have been part of American life since 1935 when the Chevrolet Suburban carryall was introduced, and following World War II, when a surplus of military jeeps was sold to the public.

Although the vehicles slowly evolved over the next 40 years, ironically it was the 1970s gas crisis that made SUV’s a staple of the highway. Because of the fuel shortages, Congress required cars to meet strict fuel standards. But light trucks were exempt, there just weren’t enough of them on the road back then to matter. Seizing on that loophole, the modern SUV evolved, a passenger vehicle, built on a light truck chassis. Its roots may lie in the suburban carryall and the jeep, it may have started as a vehicle for the young and outdoorsy, the surfer, the backpacker, the off-roader, but today’s SUV’s are increasingly upscale and they are everywhere — 25 percent of all vehicles sold today are SUV’s, with automakers keeping an average profit of $12,000 to $15,000 on each vehicle sold. Today’s SUV’s are surprisingly plush on the inside, and at the same time send a tough message to the street.

CLARENCE NIXON, SUV Owner: It’s rugged. It’s there. I mean, this is really a street machine. It’s a street type vehicle that can really run. That’s really saying something. I really like it. And it performs.

RAY SUAREZ: The Iraq War and the debate over America’s dependence on foreign oil has now energized a backlash against SUV’s, considered by many to be gas guzzlers. Bumper stickers proliferated and syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington started the Detroit Project, calling for automakers to create cars that would “end the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.”

COMMERCIAL ACTRESS: And these are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV.

RAY SUAREZ: A manufacturer’s entire fleet of SUV’s-regulated as be light trucks– must average than 21 miles per gallon, compared to the more than 27 miles per gallon mandated for a fleet of passenger cars. But because these are fleet averages, many SUV’s get well below 20 miles per gallon. Dan Becker of the Sierra Club thinks people who drive SUV’s need to know that tailpipe emissions run five times higher because they use light truck engines, that’s five times as much carbon monoxide, a factor in global warming.

DAN BECKER, Sierra Club: When you ask people about the environment, they’re concerned about it. If you ask them about their automobile, they don’t think about it as an environmental issue right away. They think about cost, they think about filling up at the gas pump. We need to get people to start thinking about the future and about being responsible and protecting their kids’ health.

RAY SUAREZ: The Environmental Protection Agency says that by 2004 SUV’s will have to meet the same minimum emissions standards as cars. But Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the Internet magazine thecarconnection.com, thinks fuel consumption and emissions are issues that just don’t resonate with people.

PAUL EISENSTEIN, The Car Connection: Gasoline prices being so low you can talk all you want about low mileage and for a lot of people it just doesn’t really matter right now. Americans really don’t seem to recognize the potential problems. Global warming is an abstract. Certainly if you check the polls, certainly if you poll the typical SUV owner, you’re likely to hear them say, “Gee that’s too bad, I’d like a cleaner car, but I’m not going to give up my SUV until you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

RAY SUAREZ: Marcie Brogan, an advertising executive in Detroit, Michigan, says fuel consumption is not an issue for her, even though the Hummer H2 she drives gets only ten to thirteen miles per gallon.

MARCIE BROGAN, SUV Owner: I do pay more for gas. But, in my hierarchy of choice, what do I want out of a car? The top is not low-cost gas. The top is safety. So, I make choices and I make tradeoffs.

RAY SUAREZ: Safety is the top feature most drivers want in an SUV and has helped make Hummer the fastest growing auto brand in the U.S. and made overall SUV sales rise, even when car sales fell.

MARCIE BROGAN: I’m not going to be surprised by something, so better visibility, so I can see what’s coming down the road, and then, that amount of steel around me, it’s, it’s very comforting.

RAY SUAREZ: But Keith Bradsher author of “High and Mighty, SUV’s: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They got That Way” says that feeling of safety is simply an illusion created by advertisers, who use strong images to make SUV’s look invulnerable. He argues that SUV’s are actually dangerous to both their owners and to other drivers.

KEITH BRADSHER, Author: You don’t see in the commercials that the SUV’s are extremely made dangerous to your neighbor’s car. You’re three times as likely to kill the other guy in a crash. You don’t see that SUV’s overall have a slightly higher death rate for their occupants than cars do, because of those rollovers. And yet at the same time, they’re greatly raising the societal death rate because they’re killing so many more people in the vehicle-to-vehicle collisions.

RAY SUAREZ: None of the big three U.S. automakers would talk to the NewsHour about SUV’s, but Eisenstein argues that owners feel safe in their SUV’s. He also insists that SUV’s are not the most dangerous vehicles on the road.

PAUL EISENSTEIN: No matter how you parse the numbers, the most dangerous vehicle on the road is a subcompact. It’s not just that you’re more likely to be killed in a subcompact if you’re hit by a truck. But if you’re hit by a small car, a big car, a little car, if you run into a guardrail, if you run into a telephone pole, if you run into a dog, for that matter, you’re more likely to be killed in a subcompact than an SUV.

RAY SUAREZ: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has started running tests simulating what happens when SUV’s hit the sides of other passenger vehicles. They hope this will lead to improvements in the safety that’s afforded passenger car occupants. The institute’s president, Brian O’Neill, also says that SUV owners have to worry about rollovers, which accounted for 25 percent of the almost 43,000 traffic deaths last year.

BRIAN O’NEILL: Many people choose SUV’s because they think they’re buying a safer vehicle. And in many kinds of collisions, they are a safer vehicle. But, that is offset by the fact that they are much more likely to roll over than a typical passenger car. They’re taller, their centers of gravities are higher, and therefore, they roll over more often.

RAY SUAREZ: He advises people not to let teens or other inexperienced drivers handle the inherently unstable SUV’s.

BRIAN O’NEILL: One of the problems with SUV’s is that the public in general knows that they have a rollover problem, but they believe that they’re not going to be the driver involved in a rollover because everyone believes that they’re an above- average driver in terms of their skills.

RAY SUAREZ: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently recommended dozens of new safety initiatives to reduce rollover crashes and protect occupants in cars that crash with SUV’s and other trucks. As for the manufacturers, they’ve experimented with rollover detection systems and stabilization systems in SUV’s to deter accidents and allow for greater control.

Auto companies also have made changes to increase the overall SUV safety record. Airbags and improved structural designs have reduced the fatalities in front end crashes from 61 percent to 43 percent. And last month when small Sport Utility Vehicles performed badly in the first-ever side impact crash tests, most were rated poor– some automakers said the results will lead to changes in vehicle design. They’re also making changes to expand their customer base. The newest trend is towards so-called “hybrids,” and “cute utes,” cars such as the Nissan Murano that are part SUV, part car, part station wagon. Jeff Schuster, of J.D. Power and Associates, says that’s where the real projected growth is likely to be in the next five years.

JEFF SCHUSTER, JD Power and Associates: That’s because that’s where the market is right now. That label or association with styling or attributes of SUV’s are selling. It’s what’s hot, and the manufacturers are scrambling to configure their vehicles to resemble or aspire to be that of an SUV.

RAY SUAREZ: More energy efficient SUV’s also are on the horizon, following in the footsteps of Toyota and Honda, which pioneered passenger cars that combine traditional combustion engines and electric motors, there are now plans for hybrid SUV’s. Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler all plan to market hybrid pickup trucks and SUV’s in the 2004 model year. With all these options manufacturers are offering, helped along by the newest tax break allowing businesses to write off up to $100,000 of the cost of an SUV in a single tax year, industry analysts say the SUV will continue to evolve, and SUV sales are expected to continue to rise.