The SUV Phenomenon: Ducking Regulations  for More Than a Decade

By Angela Bradbery
Public Citizen News

The TV commercials promote the dream: Rugged men and women driving their sport utility vehicles up rocky mountainsides or rumbling through muddy fields, pushing the finely tuned machines to the limit in conquest of the great outdoors.

The reality is quite different: Most people use their sport utilities, or SUVs, for daily tasks such as going to work, hauling groceries or taking the neighborhood kids to soccer practice. Most SUVs, in fact, rarely leave the asphalt.    

Despite the largely illusory benefits of SUVs, they are approaching icon status on the American highway. SUVs and light trucks now account for nearly half of all new car sales, and SUVs are by far among the most profitable vehicles for automakers, who make a $15,000-$20,000 profit on each one.

But SUVs are also taking a toll. The price of America s love affair with SUVs is dirtier air, increased fuel consumption, greater reliance of foreign oil suppliers and more danger on the highways. Federal policies to promote safer highways, fuel efficiency and cleaner air have essentially been stalled to accommodate the proliferation of SUVs and the profits they bring automakers.

Following the oil crisis of the early 1970s, Congress passed ground-breaking fuel efficiency standards. Gas-guzzling dinosaurs of the road began to disappear. In the 1980s, manufacturers began to make more SUVs, taking advantage of the fact that SUVs are classified as "light trucks," so they are subject to less stringent fuel economy standards. The SUV s popularity exploded as oil prices declined and energy conservation took a back seat to the free-wheeling excess of the 1980s. Detroit also was helped along by the Reagan administration s refusal to issue any fuel economy regulations and by a congressional exemption that gives SUVs a free ride on fuel economy.

"The story of the SUV is a story of how auto manufacturers bob and weave and evade standards, and how their gaze never wavers from the bottom line," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "This is a textbook example of how a big industry manipulates the political system for profit."

Cases in point:

  • Automakers recently lobbied furiously -- and successfully -- to weaken a proposed new standard for advanced air bags, even though most of the cars on the road are close to meeting the new standard. The reason: The manufacturers knew the new standard would force major redesigns of their cash cows, the SUVs, most of which never had to meet federal air bag standards.
  • Fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, called Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, have been frozen by Congress for five years. Each year, the industry uses its political muscle to persuade Congress to continue the status quo.
  • Because they don t have to meet the same fuel economy standards as cars, SUVs emit far more pollution than cars, contributing more per vehicle to global warming and to the unhealthy smog that envelops many of our major cities in the summer.
  • SUVs pose known rollover risks, but the government has done nothing about it. The government now is proposing guidelines for "consumer information notices" instead of a minimum stability standard.

Even some auto manufacturers -- who for years have defended SUVs in the wake of criticism -- are beginning to admit that the boxy vehicles pose environmental and safety problems. Ford Motor Co. chairman William C. Ford recently acknowledged in a New York Times interview that SUVs contribute to global warming and endanger other motorists. The company has announced plans to sell a small, gasoline-electric hybrid SUV that will get about 40 miles per gallon (some SUVs get as few as 10 mpg). Ford said that "the court of public opinion sometimes decides before you're ready for them to decide, and I want to make sure we're ready and ahead of the curve."

Claybrook said that, "It is encouraging and a very important acknowledgment from an industry leaders. But the whole industry needs to redesign its SUVs to be safe and energy-efficient. The government has to step in and set some hard-and-fast standards."

That seems unlikely given the auto industry s clout in stopping the DOT from setting both fuel economy and rollover standards. Manufacturers wield their power with the help of high-powered lobbyists and an extensive grassroots network of auto dealers who are loyal and steady political supporters of lawmakers in Congress.

Just Because They re Big, Doesn t Mean They re Safe

Many car buyers believe SUVs are safer than cars because of their size and bulk. In reality, they are far more dangerous to other drivers on the road, and they aren t nearly as safe for occupants as most people believe. What s more, the government has acknowledged the unique safety problems of SUVs but has done virtually nothing about it.

First, SUV s stiff front-ends make occupants more vulnerable to injury in a crash with a solid object like a tree or bridge, because energy that would be absorbed by the front-end of a car is transferred to those inside the very stiff SUV. Air bags would help mitigate this, but SUVs have never had to meet the same stringent air bag standard that cars have had to meet.

Recently, faced with the possibility that the government would impose a tough air bag standard, auto manufacturers fought back. With an extraordinary lobbying push, they successfully quashed plans by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue a standard that likely would have required SUVs to be redesigned (see page XXX).

Second, SUVs are known rollover risks. In 1998, rollovers accounted for two-thirds of SUV deaths, while rollovers caused about a fifth of deaths in cars, according to NHTSA.

Again, the government has recognized this danger for 15 years but has done virtually nothing. In 1991, Congress got involved and ordered NHTSA to act. NHTSA dragged its feet and by 1994 had merely proposed a plan to provide consumers with more information about rollovers, but that languished. Then, this spring, NHTSA pledged once again to take action but proposed issuing only consumer information guidelines based on government crash tests it could conduct without any regulatory action -- far short of a minimum safety standard that could actually do something to lessen the danger.

"We ve waited 15 long years for NHTSA to propose a stability standard for vehicles, and we are still on square one," Claybrook said. "That s because auto manufacturers don t want a standard. This a testament to their political clout and the spinelessness of government officials."

Additionally, SUVs are larger than cars and often override cars when the two crash. In response, a number of auto manufacturers, including General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Toyota, recently announced plans to modify SUVs to reduce this override risk. But according to Claybrook, "This is a purely preemptive move, which addresses only part of the problem and was made because automakers are hoping to avoid government regulations."

They Pollute the Air and Guzzle Gas

For years, fuel economy standards have remained virtually unchanged for cars and light trucks. This is in part because of a legislative rider, or amendment, attached annually to the federal budget that bars the government from even studying the idea of raising fuel economy standards for these vehicles.

The rider applies to the CAFE standards, which were passed in 1975 to conserve oil and improve the nation s gas mileage. The standards have helped cut pollution, improve air quality and enable polluted regions to achieve the goals of the Clean Air Act without other drastic local restrictions.

Each year, lawmakers approve the rider, which freezes fuel efficiency standards at an average of 20.7 miles per gallon (mpg) for SUVs and light trucks, and 27.5 mpg for cars. If Congress were to reject the rider, as environmental groups demand annually, and light trucks were to get the same gas mileage as cars, the U.S. would save 1 million barrels of oil per day, according to Sierra Club estimates. This would greatly decrease our reliance on foreign oil and would decrease pollution. For instance, an SUV that gets 14 mpg will emit more than 70 tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, while the average new car emits 38 tons.

Claybrook attributes the annual congressional stall to industry clout. Transportation-related political action committees (PACs) gave $11.5 million to federal candidates for office between 1997 and today, and oil and gas PACs gave $8.2 million during the same time period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a proposal that would crack down on pollution emissions from heavy SUVs, but they would not take effect for several years and do not address mile-per-gallon efficiency.

"The government for years has sat on its hands and done nothing to control the noxious chemicals spewed by SUVs," Claybrook said. "Meanwhile, more and more of these behemoths are streaming onto our roads. Again, it s a little too late."

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