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YOUR WHEELS

Modified vehicles: Bigger, riskier

Giving an off-road look to trucks and SUVs makes for a tougher profile, but it also can draw complaints and citations.

October 29, 2003|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

There's a hefty new breed of driving machine on the road these days. Some motorists are intent on commanding the biggest and most aggressive vehicle on their block by dramatically altering their trucks and sport utility vehicles to give them an even tougher, off-road profile.

Customizing vehicles with aftermarket equipment has been done for decades. But this imposing new class of altered vehicles with sky-high suspensions and oversize tires looks like it belongs at a monster truck fest or an off-road competition rather than cruising along residential streets. Owners of some of these extreme trucks have jacked up their vehicles 10 inches or more. Not only are some of them illegal, but they also pose serious safety risks, auto safety experts warn.

Federal studies already have shown that pickup trucks and SUVs have a higher center of gravity that makes them more prone to rollover accidents. Modifying vehicles and raising them higher with suspension kits and oversize tires increases the risk of accidents, says Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

Once confined to desert off-road areas and the wilderness, these altered machines now rumble along city roads and freeways, towering over other vehicles. It's all about conveying a sense of power, says Todd Horne, chief executive of Ten Magazines in Corona. The firm publishes magazines and operates Web sites devoted to modifying trucks and off-road vehicles.

"Ironically, most of the people driving these vehicles ... never take them off road," Horne says.

Horne sees no evidence that modified trucks are exceptionally prone to rollover accidents and contends that aftermarket systems are designed so well that they can "actually improve drivability."

Only a small minority of enthusiasts raise their vehicles to extreme heights, Horne says. Most stay within a lift range of 2 to 6 inches.

Section 24008.5 of the California Vehicle Code regulates vehicle height modifications. The law allows for moderate vehicle lifts.

Last year, the California Highway Patrol issued 178 citations for violations of the law, up 150% from 2000, says CHP spokeswoman Anne DaVigo.

The Automobile Club of Southern California gets a lot of complaints from members about the glare from the lights of high-riding trucks and how difficult it is to see while driving behind them, says Steve Mazor, principal automotive engineer for the group. And when these big modified vehicles collide with smaller vehicles in side-impact accidents, "the odds of the passenger of the smaller car surviving are very low," Mazor says.

Although many insurance companies decline to insure radically altered vehicles, that hasn't slowed consumer spending for aftermarket automotive items. Sales of suspension products, brakes, steering components, custom wheels and tires totaled $6.5 billion in 2002, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Assn.

One hobbyist is Mike Wilkes of Houston. He bought a 2001 Ford F250 for $35,000. Then he modified it by adding 38-inch tires at $500 apiece, wheels at $520 each and a lift suspension system for about $3,000. With other aftermarket items, including a stereo and interior work, Wilkes says his investment in the truck is about $65,000.

"I like being bigger than everyone else on the road," he says of his truck, which is 7 feet, 8 inches high.

But Wilkes admits there are drawbacks: "It doesn't stop very quickly" because of the oversize tires, he says. "My fiancee won't drive it, mainly because she doesn't know where the beginning of the truck is and where it ends."

In California the law regulates vehicle height by setting maximum limits on the distance from the ground to the frame depending on the weight of the vehicle. The limit for most passenger vehicles is 23 inches; it rises to 31 inches for vehicles weighing 7,501 to 10,000 pounds.

Jeanne Wright can be reached at jeanwrite@aol.com.

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