An article recently published on Crikey about the dangers of SUVs demands a rebuttal.

UNLIKE OTHER countries, we don’t have much of an anti-4X4 movement in Australia, but every so often there’s a piece of ill-reasoned polemic. The generally well-respected political journal Crikey recently published an article by Jason Murphy titled: Your SUV is killing people and making roads more dangerous – you can read the article by clicking the link here, Crikey has a paywall but it presently has a free trial.

While there is definitely a discussion to be had on the types of cars the public buys, and to what extent the government should influence their choice in the interests of public safety, environmental care and myriad other factors, Murphy’s article doesn’t advance the thinking any further. He writes: “After many years of increasing safety on our roads, we are backsliding. Australian road deaths are up 10% in 2016 compared to last year. (In Victoria, the toll is up 17%.) What has changed? The spread of airbags, ABS brakes and electronic stability control should have made us safer”.

And they have. There are numerous studies both here and overseas showing how effective safety tech is (link and link) and, in particular things like stability control and side airbags. As for the increases in road tolls; when you have relatively small figures such as the five-year average of 183 in Victoria, it doesn’t take many more fatalities to get into double-digit percentage increases.

Anyway, the article continues: “The likely culprit is the changing nature of vehicles on the road.

“Once upon a time, a person could see over the top of traffic. Cars came up to your shoulder — they were not a visual obstacle. Not now. The steady rise of the SUV is well documented. SUVs will soon be Australia’s most popular type of car. They have risen from 18% of the vehicle market in 2005 to 37% in 2016.”

That’s an assertion which isn’t backed up by facts or even a logical series of arguments. The logic is; fatalities are up, SUV sales are up, therefore SUVs cause fatalities – but there is no evidence of causation, just a partial correlation. I say ‘partial’ because the fatality rate is cited as a 10% and 17% increase from 2015-16, whereas SUV sales rose from 18 to 37% of the market over an 11-year period from 2005 to 2016. The attempt to link the two statistics is tenuous at best. I think we can find that smartphone sales have also increased over the cited period, and they certainly have a potential to distract drivers. However, I don’t have any evidence to prove the impact of smartphones on the road toll so that is a suggestion based on anecdotal evidence.

Now if we look at the Victorian figures, there’s a 119% increase in motorcycle deaths, from 19 to 41. There is nothing in the statistics to indicate the cause of the increase, far less attributing it to any specific vehicle type, and the “extra” 22 deaths is more than enough by itself to increase the Victoria toll by greater than 10%.

And here is the five-year trend, taken from the very same government web page the Crikey article cites: road-deaths

Now I don’t know about you, but I can’t see any dramatic upticks in road fatalities in the above graph. And even if there was, there’s no evidence to indicate the cause, or allow for factors such as population growth. Between about 2012 and 2014 there was a drop in the road toll, and during this period the percentage of SUVs on the road would have increased. Again, there is a discussion to be had, but let’s try and anchor it in reality.

Next we have this: “The decline of OPEC and the falling global oil price has removed the only factor keeping small cars in vogue. As a result, vehicles have puffed up like a pack of microwave popcorn.”

Not really. On average, cars get bigger with every new update, and that’s a worldwide trend driven by consumer demand. However, quite famously Aussies stopped buying the large sedans – Falcons, Commodores – and before that, failed to buy the Mitsubishi 380. We now have the likes of the Hyundai i30 and Mazda3 at the top of the sales charts, and while vehicles like the HiLux are also top sellers a lot of that is fleet purchasing. And, increasingly car makers are making greater use of strong, light weight steel to keep their cars of a similar size to predecessor models but increase the amount of interior room, and improve their crash protection.

So, yes, cars are becoming larger, but they’re hardly blowing up like a bag of microwave popcorn, fuel consumption isn’t increasing at the same rate and is even decreasing thanks to the use of ever more efficient engines, transmissions and improved aerodynamics.

Today, the number one factor driving new-car engineering is the need to comply with increasingly stringent fuel consumption and emission standards, something that Australia is not keeping pace with, but that’s a story for another time. That is why car engines are heavily revised yet offer barely any more power and torque – the engineers consider themselves lucky to have got any improvement while achieving compliance to the latest set of fuel efficiency standards. And a perfect example of this is the new Impreza, which offers just 5kW more power than the engine in the previous generation Impreza yet is more fuel efficient.

Mr Murphy goes onto write: “And the most startling of transformations might be in the humble ute. Utes are no longer based on passenger vehicles. Instead they are more like SUVs — big ones. They have come to resemble the American ‘pick-up truck'”.

“The 2007 Holden Ute was 1.5 metres high and weighed 1620kg. One of 2016’s top-selling utes, the Ford Ranger, is up to 1.85 metres high and weighs up to 2202kg.”

OK, let’s use a bit of local lingo here. The car industry hasn’t standardised the term ute, 4WD, 4X4 or SUV. However, generally speaking in Australia vehicles with actual off-road capability, such as the Ranger in its 4X4 guise are referred to as 4WDs or 4X4s. The term ‘SUV’ is typically used to describe car-based all-wheel-drive or two-wheel drive vehicles such as the Hyundai Santa Fe, the Honda CR-V and even more rough-road oriented vehicles, such as the Subaru Forester. Almost no-one would call a 4X4 ute a SUV.

Subaru Forester and Mitsubishi Outlander. Both are classed as SUVs, both are relatively small and fuel efficient and yet both have some offroad capability. They can tow 1800 and 2000kg respectively, and have fuel consumption around the 6.3L/100km mark. The Outlander is even a seven-seater.

As for comparing the Holden ute with the Ford Ranger, well, that’s simply not comparing like with like, because the Ranger in question is a 4X4 5-seat dual-cab whereas the Holden is a two-wheel drive two-seat ca-based vehicle. If we take the 2WD single-cab Ford Ranger, a much closer equivalent to the Holden Ute, we find the height is 1.7m and the weight is around 1780kg. And the Ranger is one of the larger utes, so even then it’s not a direct comparison to the Holden.

If you want a properly large ute then there’s the F250. Here’s one next to a Toyota Landcruiser LC200: 

The LC200 is about the biggest 4WD sold on the Australian market. It is dwarfed by the Ford F250 which is by no means the largest of its kind on the American market.

These large utes don’t sell well enough in Australia for the likes of Ford to offer them, so this one is a specialist conversion. Do some people buy them just for the image? Possibly, but far more buy them as a tool and after having recently towed a 3-tonne caravan with an LC200 then a F250 I can see the point of owning one. However, the relevant point is that America’s SUVs are not at all comparable to Aussie ones; theirs are far larger and more basic, so their statistics don’t apply to us.

The reality is that the average Aussie SUV is not really that different to a road car. Most of them are just a bit taller with slightly more ground clearance, and many aren’t even 4WDs, driving only two wheels. People love them for lots of reasons – ease of getting in and out, particularly if you have kids or aged parents, visibility, storage space and the ability to handle dirt roads.

Yes, back in the day every car could handle rough roads but with so much of Australia covered in bitumen today’s road cars are far less bush-worthy than their ancestors – modern cars require premium fuel, run space-saver spares, are lower to the ground, have stiff suspension and fragile, low-profile tyres.

It is true that the biggest 4x4s like the Toyota LandCruiser 200 Series are large and heavy – 2500kg-plus – but we’re talking here of a vehicle that can seat up to 8, tow 3500kg and literally drive anywhere in Australia. It’s not a direct comparison to a small city runabout. For that, you’d need to look at the Suzuki Vitara which is most definitely a SUV, but even in 2WD guise has some off-road capability as we demonstrate here (with video), and it weighs a mere 1100kg, not much more than an MX-5 and less than vehicles like Mazda3 and Corolla.

And you want to talk about heavy? How about the Audi RS6 and 7 which weigh near on two tonnes, very nearly as much as the seven-seat, 4×4-with-low-range Pajero Sport that’s waiting to be tested in my driveway.

At least the article makes the correct point that bigger vehicles beat smaller vehicles in a crash, and that ANCAP downplays this fact by not highlighting that a 5-star rating is consistent across vehicle sizes. It is also correct when it says “Effects on people who are not the occupants of the car in question are all but ignored in the discourse on Australian vehicle safety.”  But this: “ANCAP star ratings only cover the occupants of the vehicle. None of the crash test dummies are outside the car being rated.” isn’t true. Ever since 2012, pedestrian ratings have been a factor in safety ratings, and in 2016 the cars need to score at least “Acceptable” to get a 5-star rating. 

Source: ANCAP.

Finally, we’re left with this: “This is a classic type of externality — the arms race. In an accretion of individually rational choices, we make the world more dangerous for all of us. There is a potential role for someone to step in — perhaps a state or federal government. This is especially so now — fuel efficiency is rising, and the deterrent effect of fuel excise on the purchase of a large car is tumbling. (Those Ford Rangers can use as little as 7L/100km.)”

Well, yes, the Ford Ranger 4X2 is down to 6.8L/100km on the ADR combined cycle, but that’s not really the point. The basic premise – the rights of the individual has to be balanced against the rights of the rest of society – is true and apart from being a statement of the bleeding obvious, it’s not clear what the author actually proposes, beyond a fuel tax which he indirectly admits may not be that effective. So here’s some ideas. Let’s assume the three objectives are: safety for all; reduction of reliance on fossil fuels; and efficient transport. The government could:

  • introduce congestion charges;
  • increase the tax on fuel, but in a way which is fair to those that have to use fuel
  • provide greater rebates for fuel-efficient vehicles;
  • create a disparity in insurance for safer vs less-safe vehicles;
  • get ANCAP to focus on emerging safety risks such as driver distraction, and better allow for new safety tech in its ratings;
  • invest in public transport;
  • promote car sharing;
  • actually pay attention to low-risk driver training as a cause of accident reduction; it works for corporate fleets, it can work for Australians in general; and
  • help get off-street motorsport venues up and running so there’s even less excuse to endanger others on public roads.

Each of the above deserves research and discussion so we can improve safety, efficiency and the environment we live in.

From Murphy’s article, we end with: “It would be a shame to add to that list a blunt unwillingness to make laws about dangerous products.”

It’s a shame that shallow thinking passes for analysis in today’s society – that’s the real danger.

Further reading


2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country revealed… here in 2017


2017 Kia Rio revealed – key details announced


  1. Thank you for this article in an attempt to refute the idiocies of the speed demonisers.
    To be honest, I think for a large proportion of road users today, an SUV ahead of them doesn’t matter and won’t matter much because these drivers don’t look beyond anywhere than the rear bumper of the car ahead of them. There doesn’t seem to be much awareness of the vehicles #2 and #3 ahead of you.

    Recently, Queensland radio started up a “let’s change the way we look at speed” series of ads describing how things being unpredictable. Why is it that the listener has to change *their* way to look at speed and not the Government changing its way of viewing speed? There is responsibility to be had on both sides. The road user drives their now much-safer cars on the roads but draconian policing of the roads and demonisation of speed arguably makes road users take attention away from their driving, the surrounding conditions and general awareness.

    The cynical side of me though will see that the Government view will never change. It’s all about the revenue raised from fines….

    1. Hello Der. The article isn’t about speeding – that’s a seperate debate, although there is overlap with the discussion on the road toll. Probably a bigger issue for distraction is the fact that modern cars are distracting to use, and smartphones are themselves a constant distraction.

  2. I feel that “the 4wd is dangerous” idea is nothing but an urban myth, with little facts to prove such claim. Indeed if a LC200 with a bullbar was driven by a drunk teenager on drugs and using his mobile phone, would have the potential to do more carnage than if he was driving a Suzuki swift, but what are the realities? I think it wouldn’t be hard to find facts to support that the demograph most responsible/involved in serious MVAs would be young drivers (particularly males in the 18-25 age group). When I was in that demograph once, neither I or anyone else in my age group was interested in driving a Ute or an SUV. If there was a rise in the road toll, look at inattentive driving. 10+ years ago there was no smart phones or social media. Surely if there is anything to blame in the rise in road tolls that would be it.

  3. Hi Robert,

    The Crikey article would probably have some merit if the general theme of it was ‘why your SUV isn’t a sports car’, as trying to drive one as such is no doubt a recipe for disaster…..driven sensibly and responsibly though it is a different matter….it must have been a slow news day when that article was written….

  4. Usually the organic bit between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat is to blame for any collisions that occur on the road and not usually the vehicle people drive. Just going back to basics and upskill everyone (govt has no vested interest to make people super perfect nor get to a zero road toll) so that people can manage hazards and risk would go a long way to improve safety. Australia has an immature attitude towards hygiene matters relating to driving e.g. common courtesy to all road users on regardless of mode of transport. Have a look at the dashcam owners of Aust facebook site and you’ll find so many armchair experts willing to point fingers and crucify anyone for whatever mistakes is shown.

    Having just come back from Europe this week, it confirms my thinking about how poorly Australians drive and how unforgiving we all are when someone does make a mistake (not resulting in a collision type). This also flows onto the govt attitude towards speed too but as you eluded to, it’s another can of worms that needs solving. Having given the trust to do any speed I felt appropriate for my vehicle I’m driving on the autobahn safely is something I’d definitely treasure and respect greatly.

    You raised increasing fuel tax but you’d be shot down by the not-so-well-off in society crying poor because they can no longer do X because they have no alternative option at the time they need.

    I for one would support lifting fuel tax and increasing rebates on not only fuel efficient vehicles but also alternative modes of transport beyond car sharing and public transport (I’m thinking also including human powered transport which adds health benefits on top of congestion benefits).

    1. Hi Guest. That’s what I meam by “increase the tax on fuel, but in a way which is fair to those that have to use fuel” – some people have little choice but to drive, so higher fuel prices penalise them.

  5. Good to see this complete rubbish called out for what it is. It must be increasingly trendy to bag four wheel drives for people with no understanding of what they’re for. Good article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also