TCS Daily

'High' Crimes...

By Brock Yates - September 26, 2002 12:00 AM

I am truly worried about Keith Bradsher. Unless he can get this sport utility vehicle curse off his back, he is headed for serious trouble. A nervous breakdown? Fits of depression? The window ledge of a tall building? These are the potential fates facing the New York Times reporter as his life descends into a fevered crusade against America's favorite motor vehicle.

For years now Bradsher has railed against SUV's in the pages of the Times, where it has become de rigueur to carp about automobiles of all kinds. This is a supreme irony, in that Manhattan is the most car-hostile locale in the nation while the elitists who run the Gray Lady limit their motor vehicle exposure to cab rides and short jaunts from a New Haven Rail Road Station to their posh Fairfield County homes.

Bradsher has taken up the cudgel against SUV's based on their unseemly size, their gas-guzzling proclivities and for what he claims are their devastating effect on automotive safety. Endless fulminations under his byline have been featured in the Times, with little apparent effect beyond the tony precincts of Manhattan's East Side. SUV's have gained favor and market share among the great unwashed who have somehow missed the daily wisdom of that fabled organ of left-wing orthodoxy.

Now comes Bradsher's final screed in the form of a book titled High and Mighty (Public Affairs, $28) in which he fires all available ammunition in one last attempt to convince the dupes who buy cars in the Heartland that they are unwittingly creating a highway holocaust. For 469 pages, Bradsher spills out invective against the hated SUV. Sadly, his repeated broadsides are wide of the mark.

Example: One of poor Bradsher's major indictments involves high bumpers on SUV's that override the protective frame members of smaller vehicles causing, according to him, unspeakable carnage. But the facts fail to bear out his indictment in that the makers of large SUV's - GM, Ford and Toyota in particular - have designed front frame members that match up with those on normal automobiles, thereby eliminating the mismatch. Oh yes, in a twist of irony, the engineers at Ford call their new unit "the Bradsher bar." This engineering alteration is hardly mentioned in his book.

The harsh reality is this: Since Sport Utility Vehicles gained popularity, the highway death rate has declined at a higher rate than before. In the grand scheme of things, SUV's are generally safer vehicles than their smaller, lighter counterparts. From 1990 to 1996, when sales began to boom for SUV's, only 4% of occupant deaths occurred with SUV's. And that included the few hundred who died driving Ford Explorers during the Firestone tire debacle. As for Bradsher's contention that these statistics are deceiving in that SUV's bulldozed innocents in small cars, the fact remains that overall highway deaths have declined steadily to about one-in-every hundred-million-miles of vehicle travel, an amazing number considering the trillions of tons of iron that roll around American highways each day and the uncounted amounts of kinetic energy unleashed by drivers.

To be sure, Bradsher's gripes about fuel cell efficiency and emissions can be less easily defended. Soccer moms trundling around in enormous Lincoln Navigators, Cadillac Escalades, Lexus LX470's. etc. may be at the height of fashion and perfectly safe, yet the sheer size of these beasts triggers questions of social consciousness. But behemoths such as those represent a diminishing segment of the market as smaller, lighter, car-based SUV's like the Acura MDX, Toyota Highlander, Lexus RX300, DaimlerChrysler Liberty, the new Volvo XC90, Honda Pilot, etc. etc. capture an increasing percentage of the SUV market share - which now accounts for an amazing 32% of overall passenger vehicle sales.

The Chicken Little yelps of Mr. Bradsher will no doubt generate approving clucks from the elites at his paper and in other liberal enclaves, but the trend is clear: Americans love SUV's for their functionalism and safety. Unfortunately for Mr. Bradsher, he has hardly written another "Silent Spring" and sales for his hated vehicles will continue to boom.

If he does end up on a window sill, he will see a stream of SUV's rolling by on the street below including, by the way, new Ford Explorers, the sales of which are healthy following the Firestone rollover disaster.



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