Wednesday, August 24, 2005

SUV Resentment

Andrew Sullivan returned from his bloggatical this week and picked up the thread of SUVs and terrorism, referencing a generally good column by Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek.

Andrew is also soliciting suggestions for bumper stickers to express the frustration that many feel about conspicuous consumption of gasoline that helps support non-democratic regimes. I haven't seen anything that compares to Tom Friedman's:

"No Mullah Left Behind"

There is actually a cottage industry of anti-SUV bumper stickers, some that are intended to be placed on SUVs by someone other than their owner. Start here, or just use Google.

My libertarian streak prevents me from getting into the business of micromanaging what car people drive or how much they choose to spend on gasoline or any other private good. (Though I do confess that this chart makes me wonder why people would want to drive a fuel inefficient SUV unless they absolutely filled it to capacity.) The aspect of SUVs that does annoy me is that I believe that they impose a safety risk on the rest of us for which the owners bear no cost. Consider this fascinating paper by Michelle White of UC, San Diego. Quoting from the abstract:

The main result is that when drivers replace cars with light trucks, 3,700 additional crashes per year involving fatalities of smaller vehicle occupants, pedestrians and bicyclists occur, while only 1,400 crashes involving fatalities of light truck occupants are avoided, i.e., the ratio of negative external effects to positive internal effects is [over] 2 to 1. The paper argues that none of the existing traffic laws or institutions forces drivers of heavy vehicles to take account of their negative external effects.

You can read a digest article summarizing the paper here. If you are going to drive an SUV, you should have to drive better than if you drive a lighter car. I would support a special driver's license for people driving SUVs. Some of the possible reforms discussed in the paper and listed in that summary also make sense: "lower speed limits and more stringent driving rules for heavier vehicles, requiring that all vehicle owners in all states buy liability insurance, raising the minimum required levels of liability insurance coverage, and replacing no-fault liability systems for motor vehicle accidents with fault-based systems."

On the broader issue of excessive gasoline consumption and what that does in the wider world, I reiterate my basic point that a simple gas tax is the best policy. The mullahs don't care whether they get their money from someone driving an SUV 15 miles or a hybrid 45 miles--it's the same gallon of gasoline. So tax that directly and let cost drive behavior.

Other blogs commenting on this post


dearieme said...

Your conclusion is sound. A colleague ticked me off for owning an SUV, but it turns out that he and his wife drive separately to work while my wife and I cycle. We do only a small mileage in our SUV: he is the gas-guzzler, not us.

Anonymous said...

You said that "The aspect of SUVs that does annoy me is that I believe that they impose a safety risk on the rest of us for which the owners bear no cost." I'm not sure that's true. Most (all?) states require drivers to obtain insurance. Insurance companies will charge additional insurance if SUVS are inherently less safe than other vehicles. Thus, it seems that the SUV drivers are paying a higher cost for their vehicle choice.

Andrew said...

The issue is which risks get priced into the SUV insurance premium--the damage they may do to themselves or the damage they may do to others whom they meet by accident. Quoting from the digest article referenced in the post:

"However, liability for automobile damage is generally based only on negligence, irrespective of vehicle weight class. In addition, many states use no-fault systems rather than negligence rules to determine liability."

For more on what it means to live in a no-fault state, see this article.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Good points.

Anonymous said...

I saw that in the digest, but without seeing the methodology the author uses to reach that conclusion, I'm somewhat skeptical that the insurance industry does not price incrementally for the additional risks of SUV ownership. Granted, the insurance costs (if they do exist) aren't a full recapture of the additional risks that would correct the externality. I agree that liability for automobile damage is generally based only on negligence, irrespective of vehicle weight class, but that doesn't mean that the insurers aren't charging for more for SUV ownership - they are - ask for a quote. Good post.

Anonymous said...

Liability insurance for my diesel truck runs about 60% higher than for my 4-dr sedan, with all else being equal (driver profile, history, etc). Although it may not reflect the true difference, insurance companies are certainly aware of what happens in a 5000lb vehicle accident vs. a 2000lb vehicle.

On a side note, the mileage of the diesel is comparable to the car when driven conservatively - but that certainly doesn't stop the dirty looks at the gas pumps.

Anonymous said...

The real problem is our smaller cars don't stand up to SUV's - maybe instead of bitching about SUV's, we should expect better results from the smaller cars in crashes.

Anonymous said...