Politics & Policy

Easterbrook Off The Rails

An SUV critic loses his grip on reality.

It’s not too fashionable to like sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) these days. Once a symbol of affluence and adventure, ownership of an SUV has become a moral failing. SUVs are charged with numerous crimes, from increasing traffic congestion and spewing smog to endangering other drivers and even supporting terrorism. Park your SUV in the wrong part of town, and you could find it festooned with new bumper stickers courtesy of the Earth Liberation Front. The Cadillac Escalade may be the hot car with the MTV set, but amongst the chattering classes are a symbol of excessive consumption and environmental insensitivity. Some have even suggested that SUV ownership is un-Christian!

The latest attack on SUVs comes from Gregg Easterbrook in a feature-length review of Keith Bradsher’s High and Mighty: SUVs — the World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got that Way for The New Republic. Easterbrook’s review, titled “Axle of Evil,” seethes with outrage over the popularity of large four-wheel-drive vehicles and drips with contempt for their owners. Each SUV is a deadly, “anti-social” (if not “sociopathic”), “pollution-spewing hog” — “Charon on wheels.” Easterbrook finds the typical SUV owner is “insecure and vain,” “frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood,” as well as “self-centered and self-absorbed.”

One of Easterbrook’s primary complaints is that SUVs do not provide the benefits for which they are usually purchased. Easterbrook finds sufficient passenger and cargo space in other vehicles more to his liking, and too few SUV owners (in his opinion) ever take their vehicles off-road. Easterbrook dismisses the notion that many find value in the versatility provided by an SUV, whether it is used or not. Easterbrook is downright contemptuous of those who would purchase SUVs on aesthetic grounds alone.

“Axle of Evil” contains an extended discussion of SUVS and automobile safety. SUVs are not only more dangerous for pedestrians and other drivers, Easterbrook maintains, they pose a threat to their own occupants as well. Easterbrook cavalierly asserts “it is a common fallacy that the occupants inside SUVs are safer than they would be in ordinary cars.” Yet it is Easterbrook’s argument that is filled with fallacies.

To make his case, Easterbrook carelessly misconstrues federal crash-test data to claim SUV models from the late 1990s were “death traps.” According to Easterbrook, differential ratings in frontal crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that such some SUVs are substantially less safe than large passenger cars. Yet the NHTSA site makes clear that “the frontal crash test results can only be compared to other vehicles in the same weight class.” (see here). This is because, as NHTSA explains, “a frontal crash test into a fixed barrier is similar to a crash between two vehicles of the same weight.” When a larger car hits a smaller car, on the other hand, the difference in weight results in more damage to the smaller vehicle and its occupants.

It is also worth noting here that whereas Easterbrook claims that three 1997 models — Chevy Blazer, GMC Jimmy, and Oldsmobile Bravada “all earned one star” in “federal crashworthiness tests,” this is only true for passenger safety. All three earned three stars for driver safety (see here), a standard Easterbrook otherwise regards as sufficiently safe.

SUV critics note that one way to improve overall passenger safety would be to reduce the disparity in automobile sizes. This may well be true. Data from a 1997 NHTSA study suggests that reducing the average vehicle weight of all SUVs by 100 pounds might marginally reduce annual automobile-related fatalities. Passengers in the larger vehicles would be marginally less safe, but this might be outweighted by expected in creases in safety for occupants of the smaller cars. Importantly, NHTSA deemed that the impact from such modifications would be “negligible” and noted the results would not be statistically significant.

While shrinking SUV size might improve car safety, it is incontrovertible that increasing the weight of passenger cars by 100 pounds would almost certainly reduce highway fatalities by over 300 per year. These results are consistent with other studies, such as that by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which concluded that “the high risks of occupants in light (and small) cars have more to do with the vulnerabiltiy of their own vehicles than with the aggressivity of other vehicles. “Traveling in a larger, heavier vehicle reduces your risk of being killed in a crash,” notes Dr. Leonard Evans, president of the International Traffic Medicine Association. “There is no more firmly established conclusion in the vast body of traffic safety research.” In other words, if the primary aim is to increase automotive safety, the Easterbrook’s target should not be SUVs, but smaller, less-expensive cars. “Upsizing the car fleet may well be the most important step we could take toward improving safety,” notes Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

To his credit, Easterbrook admits that federal studies make clear that “the most dangerous vehicles for their occupants are compact and sub-compact cars,” not SUVs. He even suggests that the government should ban such “econo-boxes.” Yet all this demonstrates is Easterbrook’s willingness to tell other people what to drive. He evidently places little value on the ability of consumers to purchase the cars of their own choosing.

Easterbrook makes much of the fact that SUVs have a higher risk of rollover than many other vehicles. The high center of gravity on many SUVs can make them less stable around curves and in certain driving conditions. Accepting Easterbrook’s argument here is not enough to indict all SUVs. Far from it. In order to evaluate the relative safety, or lack thereof, of a given vehicle class, one must evaluate all of the relevant risks. This is something Easterbrook simply does not do. If he had, he would have noted that while driving an SUV may marginally increase some risks, such as the risk of rollover, other risks, such as the risk from injury or death in a frontal collision, are greatly reduced. On net, most SUVs are safer than most passenger cars and the biggest, heaviest SUVs — the ones Easterbrook hates the most and deems a “public nuisance” — are among the safest cars on the road. Even, the rollover risk that has Easterbrook so concerned is substantially lower in the largest SUVs than in the smaller models that Easterbrook finds less offensive.

Easterbrook is correct to note the extent to which the vagaries of federal regulations have encouraged the development of SUVs and other passenger vehicles produced as light-truck models. One of the primary culprits is CAFE — Corporate Average Fuel Economy — the federal standards governing automobile fuel economy. When the federal government required that automakers’ new car fleets meet average fuel economy targets, they responded in two ways. First, they downsized existing vehicles in order to reduce their fuel consumption (reducing vehicle size and weight is the single most-effective means to increase mileage-per-gallon). Second, automakers started to make fewer large cars, replacing them with vehicles that could be classified as “light trucks” so as to escape the regulatory requirements. Thus, the SUV (and the minivan) was born.

Federal regulations not only expanded the SUV market — people who want more passenger and cargo space had fewer alternatives — but it also downsized the passenger car fleet, increasing highway fatalities in the process. Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that existing CAFE standards contribute to 1,300 to 2,600 traffic fatalities per year. Yet Easterbrook would increase CAFE standards and berates people who choose to drive SUVs.

It should be clear that Easterbrook does not like SUVs all that much. Nor do I, to be honest. I have never owned an SUV, and I seriously doubt whether I ever will. A mid-sized hatchback is plenty big for me; unlike many SUV owners I don’t feel any more comfortable sitting farther above the road. Like Easterbrook, I am not fond of driving behind a Tahoe or Excursion on the highway, nor do I appreciate the aggressive driving habits of some SUV owners. Too many people have yet to learn that four-wheel drive won’t improve their vehicle’s handling around curves. Yet what sort of car to drive is a choice other drivers should be free to make for themselves. There is no more reason to embrace Easterbrook’s or my taste in vehicles than our respective tastes in music.

The mere sight of an SUV seems enough to send Easterbrook into a puritanical rage. Upon reading “Axle of Evil” I had to wonder if Easterbrook lays awake at night, worrying that somewhere, somehow, another American is purchasing an SUV. In assailing “the existential fiasco of the SUV,” I think it is Easterbrook — and not the millions of SUV owners — who has gone off the rails.

— NRO contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler is an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Jonathan H. Adler — Mr. Adler is an NRO contributing editor and the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. His latest book is Marijuana Federalism: Uncle Sam and Mary Jane.


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