SUVs may be comfortable, but because of that they are less safe and worse for the environment

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

Still, SUVs are controversial and have recently been targeted by an ongoing campaign by activists who have deflated their tires overnight, citing their CO2 emissions, air pollution and danger to pedestrians. The group, called Tire Extinguishers, says: “We want to make it impossible to own a huge polluting 4×4 in the urban areas of the world.”

So when people keep buying these vehicles, are they really making the best choice for the environment or for safety? Let’s look at the evidence.

war transport

To really understand SUVs, however, we must first look at the reasons why these vehicles are so popular and how they came about. Most agree that the first true mass-produced four-wheel drive vehicle was the Willy’s Jeep – a vehicle created to transport US soldiers over rough terrain during World War II. Britain’s answer to the Jeep was the Land Rover, which followed a similar design ethos but became a little more livable and practical, with proper doors and better weather protection.

The Range Rover, a vehicle introduced in 1970 and still popular today, was perhaps the true original SUV. He combined the characteristics of a luxury sedan with the ability to drive effectively on rough terrain off-road. 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.

Why do people love her?

With roughly the same footprint as a regular car, SUVs offer more space for passengers and luggage – useful as evolution means humans are getting taller. The downside to this is that all cars – even minis – are also getting bigger, so you wouldn’t necessarily need an SUV if you want more space.

Many riders also report that they like the higher seating position and off-road mobility. However, many crossover vehicles do not have all-wheel drive and are no better than any other car in this regard.

The problems

We urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road transport. The good news is that key markets like Europe are actually good at setting tailpipe emission reduction targets and, in many cases, achieving them early. However, SUVs could reverse this trend.

1. More material First, because SUVs are larger, they use more materials in their manufacture than the car they are based on. For example, a Volkswagen Golf weighs around 1,330 kg, while the Tiguan, a Golf-based SUV, weighs 1,534 kg. That extra 200kg of metal, plastic, and rubber—the weight of several people—takes more raw materials and more energy to produce.

2. Worse fuel consumption The extra weight also means they don’t achieve the same fuel economy as a regular car, as the engine has to work harder to get the car moving. SUVs also tend to be further off the ground (a higher “ride height”). This makes them less aerodynamic and means poorer fuel consumption when driving fast.

3. Rolling hazard The fact that the vehicle’s mass is higher off the ground also gives SUVs a higher center of gravity, which increases the risk of a rollover in an accident. A study in the US showed that SUVs are 11 times more likely to roll over in an accident and children in rollover vehicles are 2 times more likely to die in that accident.

4. Pedestrians at risk Back to weight. Many owners may assume that the larger SUV is safer, but the NHTSA found that reducing the weight of SUVs would reduce crash severity by 0.3% to 1.3%. This is more difficult to quantify than the fuel economy impact, and conversely, crash safety equipment usually also increases weight, but drivers should not assume that an SUV is safer because of its increased weight.

Blind spots and high bonnets make SUVs particularly dangerous for pedestrians. In fact, a recent study in the journal Economics of Transportation concluded that replacing the U.S. increase in SUVs with regular cars over the past two decades “would have prevented 1,100 pedestrian deaths.” The author also found “no evidence that moving to larger vehicles improves the overall safety of motorists”. Another smaller study in the US in 2020 showed that SUVs cause more serious injuries and fatalities when they hit pedestrians, especially at speeds over 32 km/h.

Tom Stacey, Operations and Supply Chain Management Lecturer, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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