Is Big Bad?

SUV critics hold consumers in contempt

High and Mighty: SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, by Keith Bradsher, New York: PublicAffairs, 468 pages, $28

Talk about stupidity! What kind of idiot would pay thousands of dollars extra for a poorly designed, uncomfortable, unsafe vehicle that guzzles gasoline and hogs the road? What kind of country would raise so many of these idiots that, in the span of two decades, this vehicle would go from a minuscule market share to nearly one-quarter of all new auto sales?

The vehicle, of course, is the sport utility vehicle, and we are the nation of idiot SUV owners. This is the gist of Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty: SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. Bradsher, a New York Times reporter who covered the auto industry for over five years, has written a breathtaking book -- breathtaking in the array of arguments he offers against this vehicle, the industry that makes it, the people who buy it, the society that allows them to buy it, the planet that contains that get the picture.

In Bradsher's view, the SUV is a menace to both its occupants and other drivers. Its design is outdated and inappropriate; its size, looks, and four-wheel drive bring out the worst in drivers; it clogs streets and fouls the air. Worst of all, its fuel economy is socially unacceptable.

High and Mighty has helped arm a growing anti-SUV movement whose members range from the Sierra Club and Public Citizen to the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign and Arianna Huffington's Detroit Project. Bradsher's book also has triggered some memorable anti-SUV diatribes by individuals.

Earlier this year, The New Republic carried a cover story by the normally sane environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook, bearing the understated title "Axle of Evil: America's Twisted Love Affair With Sociopathic Cars." It begins with Easterbrook contemplating the lines of SUVs outside his daughter's public school one morning, observing how SUV drivers supposedly bully their way past cars as they drop off their kids, and soon turns into a disquisition on modern automotive life, with some national security implications thrown in. Here's a sample line: "Every time an SUV or light pickup leaves the showroom in the United States, fanatics smile in the Persian Gulf." Al Qaeda, evidently, has direct access to car dealers' inventory control systems.

Perhaps Easterbrook was just having a bad car day, or perhaps he should put his daughter in a different school. In any case, his tirade illustrates how easily what were once mere irritations of daily life now turn into political crusades. Size differences can be bothersome in many contexts, but these annoyances tend to be manageable so long as you keep your temper and don't call in the politicians.

Politicians, however, are precisely the people to whom High and Mighty looks for a solution to the SUV Crisis. Bradsher is not simply interested in helping us make better car-buying decisions or instructing us in driving etiquette. He wants legal changes: revisions in the tax code to bring SUV business write-offs down to the level for cars, tougher air emission standards (some of which are already slated to take effect soon), and new state insurance regulations to mandate more precise model-based ratings.

He even wants higher penalties for reckless SUV driving, arguing that juries should deal more harshly with an SUV driver whose automotive needs could have been served by a car. Most important, he wants an overhaul of the federal fuel economy standards, popularly known as CAFE (for Corporate Average Fuel Economy) -- a program that fueled SUV popularity in the first place by downsizing passenger cars while treating SUVs and other light trucks more leniently.

Some of Bradsher's narratives are entertaining, such as the description of his attempt to figure out how much cargo his Ford Explorer could carry. The owner's manual advised Explorer drivers to weigh their empty vehicle at a highway truck inspection station, then subtract that from the gross weight shown on the vehicle sticker. Those stations, however, served only freight trucks, so Bradsher instead had to join a line of garbage trucks waiting to be weighed at a dump. The book also includes some delightful accounts of the design contortions that automakers go through in order to get their vehicles classified as light trucks rather than cars.

But most of Bradsher's arguments involve product judgments that SUV owners are perfectly capable of making on their own, and his contentions ultimately boil down to some questionable claims about what constitutes a "good" vehicle. "SUVs are terrible substitutes for cars," he declares, and if millions of SUV owners disagree, perhaps they need the guiding hand of new laws.

Consider Bradsher's treatment of four-wheel drive. In his view, 4WD is an essential part of the off-road fantasy that sells SUVs, a hazardous feature that benefits practically no one. 4WD is good for "deep mud or thick snow," he writes, but unnecessary on pavement that's "plowed...before the flakes become more than a few inches deep." He quotes one auto executive who claims there's "no actual customer need" for 4WD.

But anyone who knows anything about snow (or about municipal plowing) knows that the stuff piles up. Streets rarely get plowed to perfection, driveways are cleared only if you pay for it (and even then not right away), and snowdrifts come and go. And you don't have to live in the boondocks to encounter mud occasionally; quite often, simply pulling onto an unpaved shoulder will suffice. There's nothing wrong with millions of people deciding to pay for vehicles that can handle these conditions. Even Consumer Reports, which can hardly be dismissed as a car-nut publication, notes that 4WD "markedly improves traction and directional stability in snow and mud."

Bradsher is unwilling to accept the possibility that SUVs are popular because they are enjoyable and useful. He claims their off-road image is an insidious enticement, even though he acknowledges that most SUV buyers fully understand how infrequently they may travel off-road. He touts large cars as "excellent alternatives," even though they may be far from excellent for people who travel with lots of kids, friends, dogs, bikes, or anything that needs towing. In his view, the people who "really" need SUVs, as opposed to those who "think" they do, are few and far between.

Bradsher's disdain for consumer behavior makes sense, because he doesn't think much of SUV fans as people. He cites auto market research that supposedly finds SUV owners have "reptilian" mentalities, focused on "survival and reproduction," overly fearful of crime, and "self-oriented" in lifestyle. (Minivan owners, in contrast, "embrace the family image" of their vehicles and "tend to be extremely nice people.") With stereotypes like this, it's clear that SUV owners can't be trusted -- except, perhaps, in those snow emergencies when hospitals call on them for help.

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