The Current

Driver safety 'arms race' fuelling boom in gas-guzzling SUVs, says journalist

The number of SUVs on the road continues to climb, despite their large contribution to carbon emissions, because they keep drivers in a safety "arms race," says a transportation and environment journalist.

'You are going to be safer in a collision with an SUV if you are also in an SUV,' says Henry Grabar

SUVs have been the second biggest cause of CO2 increases over the past decade. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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The number of SUVs on the road continues to climb, despite their large contribution to carbon emissions, because they keep drivers in a safety "arms race," says a transportation and environmental journalist.

"If you're not in an SUV and you're on the road, the consequences of low visibility become more and more apparent as everyone else adopts an SUV," Slate's Henry Grabar told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

"That is borne out by the by the collision records: you are going to be safer in a collision with an SUV if you are also in an SUV."

SUVs and "crossovers," their smaller siblings, now account for about 40 per cent of global car sales, according to research by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Total worldwide sales have soared from 35 million in 2010 to 200 million today.

That's bad news for the environment: according to the IEA, they've also become the second-biggest cause of the rise in global CO2 emissions over the past decade — bigger even than infamous carbon culprits like aviation.

Henry Grabar is a writer for Slate. (Submitted by Henry Grabar)

Those emission levels are "the equivalent of [the total emissions of] Germany," said Apostolos Petropoulos, an energy modeller at the IEA.

The increase in global emissions from SUVs "cancel out the gains" made by electric vehicles, five-fold, he added.

Safety concerns 

The booming numbers of SUVs on the road aren't just a concern for the climate, said Grabar. They're also deadly for pedestrians, and for drivers in smaller cars.

When you decide to drive an SUV in the morning, you are making the worst decision safety-wise for everyone around you.- Henry Grabar

An investigation last year by The Detroit Free Press and USA Today found that SUVs were a leading cause of the skyrocketing numbers of pedestrian deaths in the U.S., which increased 46 per cent between 2009 and 2018. 

That investigation also cited a report from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that found that pedestrians were two to three times "more likely to suffer a fatality when struck by an SUV or pickup than when struck by a passenger car."

Grabar said that since SUVs are typically higher off the ground than other vehicles, drivers may not be able to see a small child walking in front at a crosswalk.

"When you decide to drive an SUV in the morning, you are making the worst decision safety-wise for everyone around you," he said. "For pedestrians or bicyclists, for the drivers who will be driving around you, and then obviously the worst decision for the polar ice caps."

A Lincoln Navigator SUV on display at the China Auto Show in Beijing, Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

'We tend to overthink what we need'

Despite these issues, there are lots of reasons why more Canadians are lining up to buy SUVs, says freelance automotive writer Jil McIntosh.

"We have a population that is aging, and SUVs — or at least the smaller ones — are easier to get in and out," she said.

Their size also gives drivers greater visibility on the road — although "that really is a moot point now because everybody is in exactly the same-sized vehicle," she added.

But beyond that, consumers buy big vehicles because "we tend to overthink what we need," McIntosh said.

Jil McIntosh is an automotive writer. (Brian Early)

"Every pickup truck has to be able to pull 35,000 pounds even though we never trailer anything," she said.

"Same with SUVs — you know, 'I might want to put people back in that third row, I might want to put everything in the back and put stuff on the top, and I need this,' even though in reality they never will."

Should governments intervene?

McIntosh said that it's hard to expect auto makers to simply stop manufacturing these vehicles when they're such hot sellers. 

"They do have a social responsibility, but at the same time, they are companies that will not survive if they do not sell enough vehicles," she said. "And if this is what consumers are clamouring for, well, that's what they're going to build."

McIntosh and Grabar agreed that's a good reason for governments to intervene.

"Managing the externalities of these cars — both their safety record with respect to people around them and their emissions record with respect to climate change — that should be the responsibility of the government," Grabar said.

But he added that individual consumers can take on some responsibility themselves and choose to buy other types of vehicles.

"[People] have voted so loud with their feet in favour of SUVs that we are going to face hurdles adapting [to climate change] in a way that we wouldn't have 10 years ago, when people were buying lower emission cars."


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Peter Mitton.

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