Sport utility vehicles began as bare-bones bruisers usually found roaming remote areas where four-wheel drive was necessary to climb dunes and cross streams. Today, almost all the classier cousins of those first SUVs are denizens of the asphalt jungles of the cities and suburbs. America's long-standing love affair with the automobile has fully embraced the SUV, making it the muscular 1990s version of the big family station wagons of the 1950s. But their popularity and size are giving rise to concerns about safety and their gas-guzzling, high-polluting engines.
The size and strength comfort their occupants, but the question increasingly is asked: Do sport utility vehicles pose a risk to smaller passenger cars that share city streets and freeways with them?
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently reported that passengers in cars hit by SUVs or pickup trucks are four times as likely to be killed as the occupants of the SUVs or trucks. The danger arises from the higher and heavier front ends. Upon impact with a car, they strike areas above the underbody with greater force, increasing the risk of injury and damage. The study showed below-average policy claims for collision damage to SUVs and pickups but higher-than-average claims for damage to other vehicles or property.
Such safety concerns have prompted Ricardo Martinez, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to push auto manufacturers to voluntarily make design changes in their hugely profitable SUVs to make them more "crash compatible" with cars.
The industry has been aware of the safety problem. The new Mercedes and Lexus SUVs are the first to have sophisticated impact-absorbing crush zones. The NHTSA plans a series of crash tests soon pitting passenger cars against pickups, minivans and sport utility vehicles.
The rising popularity of SUVs has changed the composition of what's on the road. Nearly half of all new vehicles sold today are SUVs, and they now account for about a third of America's road vehicles. Ironically, 95% of them are strangers to off-road driving, never leaving paved streets or highways.
When the California Air Resources Board last December proposed that most light trucks, minivans and SUVs be required to emit no more pollution than passenger cars by the model year 2004, Ford Motor Co. decided on its own to introduce SUVs and minivans this fall that would meet current passenger car emission standards.
That was a refreshing change in an industry that initially fought seat belts, fuel economy and air bags. All auto makers should seek to keep the confidence of consumers by voluntarily redesigning SUVs to enhance pollution control and safety for all of us on the road.