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Detroit Can Do Better: SUV Owners Should Demand Safer, More Fuel-Efficient Vehicles

July 18, 2003

Detroit Can Do Better: SUV Owners Should Demand Safer, More Fuel-Efficient Vehicles


Statement of Laura MacCleery, Counsel for Auto Safety, Public Citizen

Federal auto safety regulators announced yesterday that highway deaths in 2002 were at the highest level since 1990, and that 82 percent of that increase from 2001 is from fatal rollover crashes. The number of people killed in SUV rollovers rose 14 percent in one year.

When we at Public Citizen testify before Congress about the shocking safety risks of SUVs and their too-high costs at the pump, automakers respond that consumers do not care about safety, that consumers do not care about better gas mileage.

We are here today to say that the automakers are not fooling anybody. In fact, while many consumers may like SUVs, they also want a safe vehicle to transport their children, and they want to spend their hard-earned dollars on something other than gasoline. They are worried about a vehicle arms race on the highway, where everyone has to keep supersizing their family car just to be safe from the other guy on the road.

In fact, many Americans just don’t buy the line from Detroit that today’s SUV is the best we can do. They know that if we can send someone to the moon, that the automakers have the know-how to make a better, more socially and environmentally responsible SUV.

But the automakers’ choice to make a backwards-looking SUV means we are now “stuck in reverse” on both fuel economy and safety, both of which were steadily improving before the SUV explosion.

Over the past decade, the industry spent $9 billion advertising SUVs, which are now almost a quarter of all new vehicles sold. Automakers began aggressively promoting SUVs in the early 1990s because they were losing market share in the passenger car market and because SUVs are far more profitable than cars due to lax safety and fuel economy standards.

And because SUVs don’t have to meet sensible fuel economy standards, which have not been raised since 1988, automakers have been able to use historical, year-in, year-out gains in engine and fuel efficiency to bulk up SUV size, weight and horsepower. This has devastating consequences on the highway, because weight is the No. 1 factor that makes SUVs dangerous in crashes with cars.

A report by Public Citizen last month found that SUVs are second only to minivans as the most popular vehicle to transport children. But SUVs are twice as deadly for children as minivans. And the use of SUVs to transport children is rising.

We also found that SUV owners spent $9 billion more for gasoline last year than they would have if SUVs were as fuel-efficient as cars. That’s $350 each year for every SUV owner.

Automakers could change this. But without federal rules to require action and a massive uprising from consumers who are sick and tired of this poor performance, Detroit will never fork over the money to fix these highly profitable cash cows.

We know that SUV owners expect more of the auto industry. In our on-line campaign at www.betterSUV.org, launched just last month, SUV owners are making it very clear that they don’t think automakers are doing nearly enough to improve SUVs, and that, while they may want the utility of an SUV, they see no need for the gas-guzzling, pollution-belching, tippy vehicle in their driveway.

In just a month, thousands have visited the Web site and more than 200 people have joined the campaign — both SUV owners and non-SUV owners alike. Campaign members own a wide variety of SUV makes and models and live in 35 states. About half of the members are parents.

Their comments show that they are sick and tired of feeling conflicted because they can’t purchase the SUV that they know it is possible to make:

  • From Lynn Fuller, a California mother of four: “We need an extra-large vehicle for our children and special needs equipment, as well as dogs. We have been frustrated for years by the lack of fuel-efficient, safe vehicle choices that meet our needs. The refusal of the Detroit automakers to budge on fuel efficiency is inexcusable and the SUV safety problems are appalling.”
  • From Kim Norts of San Francisco, CA, mother of two: “The safety and fuel technology is available and people want cars that use it to the fullest extent. Physics does not dictate that bigger is safer. The auto industry should stop dragging on these issues and provide people with safer, more fuel efficient or alternative fuel (clean) vehicles.”
  • From Casey Ryan, a California father of three: “If Americans can put a man on the moon … and develop … artificial intelligence and computer science and bioinformatics and genomics, then … Americans can do anything they put their minds to. We need to be putting those minds to work for something that affects Americans on a daily basis, more relevant and practical for those that pay taxes and work hard like myself: Build a better SUV.”

I thank the Chesapeake Climate Action Network for organizing this event, and I hope that every SUV owner who receives a flier will take note, send the attached postcard to Detroit and demand what we all know automakers can provide – a better, safer, cleaner SUV.