TCS Daily


4x4 Class Struggle

By Carlo Stagnaro - August 8, 2006 12:00 AM

Crusades usually start with a peace declaration. Here's what the Italian Minister of Environment Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio had to say recently on the subject of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) and whether they should be allowed to circulate in Italian cities: "We are still working on it, but without waging a crusade. SUVs aren't welcome inside cities and they are to be disincentivized. But that's just a part of the picture: our target is broader and aims at reducing the number of vehicles in cities." Ermete Realacci, president of the Italian parliament's Environment and Public Works Committee, has suggested the adoption of "different taxes" for SUVs. Even Paolo Cento, Undersecretary of Economy, has called for an extra tax on SUVs (he waited until after he had sold his own, however).

Despite what had appeared at first to be a moderate approach, it is clear the Italian government is going to hit SUV owners with a new tax. After all, the major environmental organization Legambiente, of which Realacci is former president and still honorary president, defines SUVs as a "collective delirium". SUVs are supposedly too large, consume too much, and pollute too much. But these are bogus concerns. If they were real, specific provisions would be proposed: for example taxes or fees on cars that consume or pollute "too much" (whatever that means) or exceed certain dimensions. In particular, dimensions may be an actual problem in some Italian cities because of several streets' narrowness. However, there is no reason for a national law to be implemented to solve what is obviously a local problem. A city may already prohibit SUVs in its historical center, for example, as Florence already has done (even though it didn't rule out cars that are as large as, and weigh as much as, most SUVs - since they are not SUVs).

Likewise, as far as consumption is concerned, there is no need for a new tax. If an SUV consumes more than an ordinary car, then it requires more fuel to cover the same distance. That is, the amount of gas taxes paid by the owner is already higher. Moreover, Italy has a car ownership tax (the so called "bollo") which is proportional to engine power. Assuming an SUV is more powerful than its ordinary counterpart, the bollo is higher accordingly. The same applies to pollution. First, SUVs must comply with Euro4 pollution standards, just as do other cars. Secondly, newer vehicles are cleaner than the old ones, as is shown by the decrease in pollutants emissions despite the higher number of circulating vehicles (even in the US, where SUVs are a substantial share of total vehicles). After all, the Fiat Sedici - the Italian carmaker's own SUV - has the very same engine as its Alfa 147. Why should it be taxed in a different way?

Finally, one should consider that if a car weighs more it may be safer. A 2001 study by the National Academy of Sciences shows that the SUV-related death rate (140 per million of registered vehicles) isn't significantly different from the average death rate of all vehicles (138 per million). However, larger SUVs are significantly safer (with a death rate of 92 per million) while smaller ones are apparently less safe (195 per million) and yet much safer than mini-cars (249 per million) that the anti-SUV crowd usually praises. On the other hand, there's no evidence that crashing with an SUV is more risky than crashing with an ordinary car.

If data and logic lead to a conclusion, it is the following: anti-SUV policies have little to do with SUVs per se. Their goals are more ambitious and radical. One is social. Typically SUVs are driven not by rich people but by the middle class. As such they embody what European progressives hate more than anything: the desire to grow, to live an easier and more comfortable life. A second goal is political. As Pecoraro Scanio said, SUV taxes and the extension of SUV-free areas are steps towards stricter limitations on private traffic. What is then put at stake is the individuals' right to go where and when they want. In that respect, SUVs are part of a freedom to move that has been created by technology and capitalism.

The author is Free Market Environmentalism Director of Istituto Bruno Leoni.

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3 Comments

A Modest Proposal for Road Safety
"Finally, one should consider that if a car weighs more it may be safer. A 2001 study by the National Academy of Sciences shows that the SUV-related death rate (140 per million of registered vehicles) isn't significantly different from the average death rate of all vehicles (138 per million). However, larger SUVs are significantly safer (with a death rate of 92 per million) while smaller ones are apparently less safe (195 per million) and yet much safer than mini-cars (249 per million) that the anti-SUV crowd usually praises."

I suspect that this is merely the death rate of drivers & passengers. The death rate of those hit by SUVs may be higher. As an ex-motorbiker I know that the large majority of accidents between cars & bikes is the car driver's fault, usually he says that he "never saw" the other. Obviously the large majority of deaths & injuries are in the unarmoured vehicles. There is therefore the inherent disincentive to fatal have accidents is lessened for the SUV driver. One alternative would be to insist that all cars, by law, have a large metal spike sticking out of the steering wheel at the driver's chest to encourage careful driving. Another is higher taxes for heavier cars.

However I have to agree that, like most "environmentalist" plans, the campaign against SUVs does seem to owe more to sloganeering than thought.

Has Italy exported a SUV?
Has Italy exported a 4 wheel drive vehicle, since tribesmen in Ethiopia kicked out their Army using spears in World War 2?

Gummint Regs
I vote yes!! Italy, and all other nations or course, absolutely requires more regulation, more and more narrowly targetted, about - well - everything! How is one to know what is good or bad without some government agency or other to tell us? How could we possibly continue to function is the oh so complex modern world without omniscient, beneficient government oversight? After all, aren't the best and brightest of us those who lead us from their airconditioned, taxpayer provided offices in the worlds various capitols?

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