four reasons why they are less safe and worse for the environment than a regular car

The sport utility vehicle, or SUV, and its derivative class known as the crossover or CUV, are now the most popular vehicle types. In the UK they account for more than half of all new cars sold, and the story is similar around the world.

Yet SUVs are controversial and have recently been the target of a sustained campaign by activists who deflated their tires overnight, citing their carbon emissions, air pollution and danger to pedestrians. The group, called Tire Exinguishers, says: “We want to make it impossible to own a huge, polluting 4×4 in urban areas around the world.”

So, as people continue to buy these vehicles, are they really making the best choice for the environment or safety? Let’s look at the evidence.

Wartime transport

To truly understand SUVs, however, we must first look at why these vehicles are so popular and how they came to be. Most agree that the first true mass-produced four-wheel-drive vehicle was Willy’s Jeep, a vehicle created to transport American soldiers over rough terrain during World War II. The British answer to the Jeep was the Land Rover, which followed a similar design philosophy but became slightly more livable and more suitable for everyday use, with proper doors and better weather resistance.

black and white photo of soldiers in small 4x4
Testing a Willys Jeep in California, June 1942.
US Army Signal Corps/wiki

The Range Rover, a vehicle that was introduced in 1970 and remains popular today, was perhaps the true original SUV. It combined the features of a luxury sedan with the ability to drive efficiently over rough off-road terrain. The Range Rover spawned hundreds of vehicles in a similar style, and it wasn’t long before every manufacturer was making SUVs, even those known for sports cars, like Porsche and Lamborghini.

So why do people love them?

In the same approximate footprint as a regular car, SUVs offer more space for passengers and luggage – useful since evolution means humans are getting taller. The flip side is that all cars – even minis – get bigger too, so you wouldn’t necessarily need an SUV if you want more space.

Family inside an SUV
Some drivers like the extra space and higher views.
Monaco North / Shutterstock

Many drivers also report that they like the higher riding position and off-road capability. That said, many crossovers don’t have four-wheel drive, so they’re no better than any other car in that regard.

The problems

There is an urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road transport. The good news is that key markets like Europe are doing well in setting tailpipe emission reduction targets and, in many cases, meeting them early. However, SUVs could start to reverse this trend.

1. More hardware
First, because SUVs are bigger, they use more materials in their production than the car they’re based on. A Volkswagen Golf, for example, weighs around 1,330 kg, while the Tiguan, an SUV based on the Golf, weighs 1,534 kg. Those extra 200kg of metal, plastic and rubber – the weight of several people – all use more raw materials and more energy to produce.

2. Worst fuel economy
The extra weight also means they don’t achieve the same fuel economy as a normal car, as the engine has to work harder to move the car forward. SUVs also tend to sit further off the ground (a higher “ride height”). This makes them less aerodynamic and means poorer fuel economy when traveling at speed.

3. Risk of rolling
The fact that the vehicle mass is higher off the ground also gives SUVs a higher center of gravity, which increases the risk of a rollover in the event of an accident. A study in the United States showed that SUVs have an 11 times higher risk of rolling over in an accident and that children in vehicles that roll over have a twice higher risk of dying in this accident.

4. Pedestrians at risk
Back to weight. Many owners may assume that the larger SUV is safer, but the US vehicle safety agency NHTSA observed that reducing SUV weight would reduce crash severity by 0.3% to 1.3%. That’s a harder thing to quantify than the effect on fuel economy, and conversely, crash safety equipment usually adds weight, but drivers shouldn’t assume an SUV is safer. due to its increased weight.

Blind spots and high hoods make SUVs particularly dangerous for pedestrians. Indeed, a recent study in the journal Economics of Transportation concluded that replacing the growth of SUVs in the United States with regular cars over the past two decades “would have saved 1,100 pedestrian deaths.” The author also found “no evidence that switching to larger vehicles improved overall motorist safety.” Another smaller study in the United States in 2020 showed that SUVs cause more serious injuries and deaths when they strike pedestrians, especially at speeds over 20 mph.

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