SUVs are as dangerous to health as tobacco...
- Would you buy a car that looked like this?
Andrew Simms argues that SUVs are as dangerous to health as tobacco and
should be made to carry similar warnings
They clog the streets and litter the pages of weekend colour supplements.
Sport utility vehicles or SUVs, otherwise known as 4x4s, four-wheel drives
and all-terrain wagons, have become badges of middle-class aspiration. They
are also dangerous, fabulously polluting and, as part of a general
transport problem, set to become, according to the World Health
Organisation, one of the world's most common causes of death and disability
- ahead of TB, HIV and war. But as the advert for the original British
urban crossover car, the Range Rover, puts it, the SUV stands "above it
all". It's a place to go, say the advertisers, to "preserve your inner calm".
With the Kyoto Protocol about to kick in and a major conference on global
warming starting in Buenos Aires in two weeks, it is time for some fresh
thinking on SUVs. In London, Mayor Ken Livingstone has proposed a surcharge
on vehicle excise duty for SUVs and a higher congestion charge. But drivers
will probably just complain and pay. It's a problem that needs a more
The gap between image and reality with SUVs is reminiscent of that in
tobacco industry advertising. After all, the scientific consensus over the
causes and consequences of climate change closely mirrors that about
smoking and cancer. And in the same way as the tobacco advertisers, car
advertisers have tried to associate their product with masculinity, health
and the outdoor life. So shouldn't SUVs now be labelled in the same way as
cigarette packets, with messages such as those in our illustration or
"Climate change can seriously damage your health"? This might not entirely
stop people driving SUVs, but it would force them to accept the
consequences. The case for regulation of this sort is growing like a giant
cloud of vehicle exhaust.
According to a 2004 World Health Organisation report, 1.2 million people
across the world are killed in road crashes each year and 50 million
injured. If nothing changes, the numbers are projected to rise by 65 per
cent in 20 years. In Britain alone, there were 290,607 reported road
casualties in 2003, including 3,508 deaths.
The WHO compares the global burden of diseases by look- ing at the years of
potential life lost as a result of premature death and the years of
productive life lost due to disability. In 1990, road traffic accidents
ranked ninth on these criteria. By 2020, they will be third. And this does
not include the contribution of vehicle emissions to respiratory disease
and deaths or to the injuries caused by climate change.
SUVs, by almost any measurements, are more dangerous than other passenger
cars. The Ford Explorer, America's biggest-selling SUV, is 16 times more
likely than the typical family car to kill the occupants of another car in
a crash. Pedestrians, too, are more at risk. You're twice as likely to be
killed if you get hit by a 4x4. Even the widespread belief that, come the
crunch, so to speak, the SUV owner is better off is a myth. New US federal
traffic data reported in the New York Times shows that "people driving or
riding in a sport utility vehicle in 2003 were nearly 11 per cent more
likely to die in an accident than people in cars". One of the SUV's key
selling points, its height, which is meant to make you feel safer, makes
these cars twice as likely to be caught in fatal "rollover" accidents as
ordinary cars. The US Consumers Union also reports that SUVs suffer from
greater rear-view blind spots - which may account for the rise of more than
50 per cent (to 91) last year in the number of US parents who killed their
children by reversing over them.
Then there are vehicle emissions. Road transport now accounts for half of
most pollutant emissions and a fifth of all CO2 emissions in Europe. In
2002, greenhouse gas emissions from transport in the UK were 47 per cent
higher than in 1990.
There are both direct and indirect health consequences. Living in Glasgow,
Britain's third most polluted city, has the same effect on the lungs as
smoking 44 cigarettes a day, reports the Scotsman. One ingredient of
vehicle emissions, particulates, is linked to increased risks of asthma,
heart attacks and reduced lung function. The National Asthma Campaign has
estimated that asthma, aggravated by air pollution, costs the UK more than
£1bn a year. The Department of Health estimated that the deaths of between
12,000 and 24,000 vulnerable people were accelerated by air pollution.
Still more casualties can be attributed to climate change. Though the
effects are only just beginning, the WHO estimated that it caused 150,000
deaths in 2002.
SUVs are bound to be more dangerous in these respects. They give only
around 20 miles a gallon, while the most efficient passenger cars can give
three or four times as much.
As the Health Secretary, John Reid, put it the other day: "In a free
society, men and women ultimately have the right within the law to choose
their own lifestyle, even when it may damage their own health." But, he
added, "people do not have the right to damage the health of others, or to
impose an intolerable degree of nuisance on others". And when it comes to
choosing cars, it seems that neither industry nor the self-absorbed
consumer can be trusted to do the right thing.
In the US, by the end of the 20th century, overall vehicle economy had
dropped to its lowest level in 20 years. According to the Union of
Concerned Scientists, "two decades of fuel-saving technologies, that could
have helped curb carbon dioxide emissions, have instead gone into
increasing vehicle weight and performance". The figures bear them out. In
1985, SUVs accounted for only one in 50 vehicles sold in the US. Now they
make up one in four. In Britain, sales of 4x4s rose 13 per cent in 2003 to
111,846; in London, they now account for one in seven new cars sold.
In the US, people don't drive them just because they like them. Amazingly,
the US government waves them on with tax breaks. Even the most costly SUVs
- owned by lawyers, real estate agents, plastic surgeons, film stars and so
on - get breaks that can be worth up to $35,000. This is because SUVs are
modelled on the frames of commercial vehicles. In other words, as far as
the US taxman is concerned, they're really trucks. A sales tax credit
designed for light trucks of more than 6,000lb ended up being applied to
the full range of big cars. This encourages manufacturers to build larger,
weightier and more polluting vehicles. Adding transport insult to climate
injury, such vehicles are also exempted from emissions limits imposed on US
None of this is a problem if you listen to the industry. "CO2 is not a
pollutant. Repeat, not a pollutant," says the SUV Owners of America, an
industry front group run by a PR firm that has worked for General Motors,
DaimlerChrysler and Ford. "It is a naturally occurring part of the air we
breathe." Carbon dioxide is "not" a pollutant only in the way that arsenic
is "not" a poison. It's all a question of dosage. And that's the problem
So would fuel taxes change behaviour? Yes, in part. But fuel duties have
been politically out of favour since the country was held to ransom during
the fuel blockades. And to change behaviour significantly, the taxes have
to be very high.
That is why we should look at labelling. If you peer at the small print on
car adverts, you can find out how many grams of carbon dioxide per
kilometre a car will produce. But that's meaning- less without comparative
figures. The government plans to pilot a new labelling scheme based on the
green-to-red, A-to-G European labels that are found on electrical appliances.
Research and experience suggest, however, that more is needed. The Society
of Motor Manufacturers says that "environmental factors are very low on
people's list of priorities when it comes to buying a car". So the New
Economics Foundation is looking at the model of tobacco labelling as a way
to help people kick the SUV habit. Canadian government research, backed by
World Bank findings, shows that there is a direct relationship between the
size of warnings and the effect on personal behaviour. "The larger the
health warning message," reports Health Canada, "the more effective it is
at encouraging smokers to stop smoking."
Where cigarette smoke contains benzene, nitrosamines, formaldehyde and
hydrogen cyanide, as the warnings tell us, car exhaust has benzene,
particulates, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Smoking kills, but so do
SUVs, their exhaust and the global warming to which they disproportionately
Opinion is already turning against the vehicles. It is not only London's
Ken Livingstone who wants to restrict them. Paris city council has declared
that SUVs are "totally unacceptable". In Rome, the city government has
proposed to treble the permit rate for SUV owners to enter the city centre.
So labelling is the logical next step. The only issue would be classifying
the guilty parties. The urban off-roader, crossover SUV, Chelsea tractor,
four-wheel drive or 4x4 is instantly recognisable with or without the
bullbars. The group encompasses vehicles with similar size and style that
are marketed as sport utility vehicles but which may not incorporate
substantial off-road features. Styling aside, a threshold could be set to
trigger the labelling, such as having a certain number of typical features,
on the basis that "if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck . . . ".
Fuel efficiency, already used as a basis for assessing vehicle excise duty,
could also be key, with the labelling kicking in when efficiency drops
below a certain threshold. Like those for cigarettes, the warnings could
cover 30-50 per cent of the vehicles' surface area. People could still
drive them, but when they did, they would publicly accept the consequences
of their actions, and help the education drive on traffic safety and global
At the least, cigarette-style car labelling would help the industry move
out of denial. A recent advert for the Chrysler Crossfire invited the
reader to "kiss the sky" with the car. But in an age of global warming, a
more honest slogan for a 23mpg vehicle would have been "rip it apart".
Label up, and let's go.
Andrew Simms is policy director of nef (the New Economics Foundation),