TCS Daily

Be Safe, Not Sorry

By John Merline - January 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Has there ever been a more intense campaign against a single consumer product that the one being waged against SUVs? To hear critics, they are nothing more than gas guzzling road hogs that deepen our dependence on foreign oil, pollute the air, and kill other more prudent drivers in smaller cars. The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Jeffrey Runge, joined the chorus in mid-January, decrying SUVs for their tendency to roll over.

Naturally, blame for this seemingly abhorrent product gets focused on Detroit. Columnist Arianna Huffington fumes about Detroit's "reckless gas-guzzling ways." Joan Claybrook, head of the Naderite group Public Citizen, argues: "The story of the SUV... is a textbook example of how a big industry manipulates the political system for profit."

The only thing missing from this picture is the fact that SUVs are hugely popular.


  • Sales of cars - a category of autos that excludes SUVs, minivans and pickups - have been falling steadily for decades. They dropped 10% between 1990 and 2001, according to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which keeps track of this for the federal government. Worst hit in recent years have been subcompact cars. They saw sales cut in half in the past decade.

  • Sales of SUVs, meanwhile, climbed an eye-popping 312%.

As a result, SUVs, along with the ever-popular minivan, made up 30% of all automobiles sold in 2001, according to the ORNL. That's up from 14% in 1990.

Maybe Detroit suddenly found some new marketing technique to seduce these millions of car buyers into paying top dollar for oversized vehicles. More likely is the fact that families who want versatility in their vehicles - towing capacity, storage space for travel, room for kids - have little choice but to buy one of them. And with the massive baby boom generation currently busy having families and taking vacations, there are lots of folks who fit into this category.

Meanwhile, those who claim that SUVs are incredible gas hogs haven't looked at the data. By far and away the most popular type of SUV is the mid-sized variety. They sold more than 2 million in 2001. A mere 785,000 of the earth-shaking SUVs sold that year. Those mid-sized SUVs got an average of 21 miles per gallon, according to the ORNL. That's equal to the average mid-sized car built in 1980. And it's just slightly worse than the million-plus minivans sold each year. Yet nobody is equating minivan-driving soccer moms as supporting terrorists.

Despite all this, overall fuel economy of all the passenger vehicles on the road actually climbed 6.6% between 1990 and 2000, according to the Energy Information Administration. And the highway fatality rate dropped 27.4%.

None of this may suit those who claim to know better what consumers should drive, or what Detroit should make. But from that data it looks as though consumers are being pretty sensible about what they buy with their own money. As they usually are.

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