Time for more SUV regulation

Gregg Easterbrook in The New Republic makes the great case for more regulation of SUVs in the name of public health, safety, and welfare:

Perhaps the most tiresome defense of the SUV is, “No one can tell me what I can drive.” But, of course, government can tell you what you can drive and has been doing so for years. The Bill of Rights creates two specially protected areas of possessions: militia arms and just about anything — newspapers, magazines, books, movies, tickets to live performances — connected with political or artistic expression. But there’s no constitutional right to own devices society thinks you shouldn’t have (burglar tools, for example) or substances society thinks you shouldn’t have (dynamite, anthrax spores) or to operate machines that pose threats to others (you need a license to fly a plane or drive a bulldozer, and these licenses are hard to obtain). All kinds of products and purchases are regulated by law, and courts generally uphold such laws so long as they are reasonably related to the public good. The idea that there’s a right to own a monstrous personal conveyance that wastes gasoline, causes road rage, and, most significantly from the public-good standpoint, increases traffic fatalities, is nonsense…

If you wanted to buy a Hummer or an Escalade, put it up on blocks in your backyard, and use it for parties, that would be nobody’s business but your own. If you want to drive that vehicle on public roads, creating peril for others, then it becomes the public’s business. All kinds of rules have been passed regarding what can be operated on public roads, and courts have upheld these rules. In the cases of SUVs and pickup trucks, Congress has simply failed to enact adequate rules.

In fact, as some have observed, the SUV’s ubiquity is more because of, not in spite of, government regulation. As Joseph White recently noted in the Wall Street Journal:

For more than a decade, a growing number of families have opted for an SUV to carry themselves and all their gear from place to place, and government policies abetted that shift. Now the government’s safety messages are sending a signal to families that they would be better off to go back to being securely belted into the seats of large station wagons. Still, because of earlier regulatory decisions and marketing decisions made years ago, SUVs are more plentiful — and have better deals to offer — than big crossover wagons.

Just raising fuel economy by one-third could eliminate U.S. oil imports from the Persian Gulf within ten years, and that’s possible not only using existing technology, but with the same kind of technological gains we’ve seen in recent years, albeit directed to private and not public gain:

auto and SUV engines have gotten much more efficient in the last two decades, it’s just that all the engineering improvements have gone into higher horsepower and more weight, not into MPG. From 1981 to 2003 [according to the EPA (pdf)], average horsepower of new vehicles rose 93 percent, average weight rose 24 percent, average zero-to-60 acceleration rose 29 percent, and mileage rose 1 percent.

And that improved acceleration, coupled with improved brakes, has just led to more aggressive driving: more speeding, more sudden stops and jackrabbit starts, more cutting off, more freeway tailgating at 100 mph. 0 to 60 in six seconds used to be reserved for Formula One. Today’s Toyota Camry does 0-60 in 5.8 seconds; a 1970 Ford Mustang Mach 1 Cobra Jet 428 took 5.7, with a then-stunning 335 hp under the hood. What’s more, only 3,500 Cobra Jets were ever made; contrast that to the half-million Camrys sold in America every year. Meanwhile, the 2008 Porsche Cayenne Turbo has an astonishing 500 horses, moving its 5,000 pounds from 0 to 60 in 4.9 seconds.

This horsepower explosion has serious implications for urban traffic design as well. The proliferation of stop signs throughout Chicago, for instance, is a half-assed attempt at traffic calming, to keep people from using their newfound automotive superpower to careen through neighborhoods at 50 mph — or to blatantly ignore crosswalks on arterials. Yet, all vehicles are expected to abide by the letter of these regulations, even if the traffic-calming spirit (or purpose) of the law is on their side.

The Model T had 20 horsepower; a bicyclist averages about 0.5. Is there any logic to the idea that these vehicles have the capacity, much less the obligation, to abide by the same rules that apply to vehicles ten or a hundred times more powerful, or with five or fifty times more mass and almost a thousand times more momentum?

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5 thoughts on “Time for more SUV regulation

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  2. Clark Williams-Derry from Sightline dug up an amazing graph (blogged here at Gristmill) that shows how horsepower spiked upwards the instant that fuel economy “hit a wall” — i.e., CAFE standards settled into their holding pattern in the late 1980s.

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