“High and Mighty”: On or Off-Track?

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High and MightyA new book by the former New York Times Detroit bureau chief says insurance companies have shied away from charging higher premiums on sport-utility vehicles, and have instead forced drivers of other vehicles to pay more.

High and Mighty — SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles And How They Got That Way is the new book about the rise of the SUV culture. Written by Keith Bradsher, who spent half a decade in Detroit as The New York Times bureau chief, the book also implicates Detroit's top car guy Bob Lutz as a leader in the movement to make SUVs bigger and bolder — and, Bradsher argues, more deadly.

In an unfortunately timed parallel, Bradsher asserts that SUVs, despite all the safety equipment available, now contribute to more than 3000 needless highway deaths annually - a toll greater than the terrorist strike on the World Trade Center. "SUVs represent the biggest menace to public safety and the environment that the auto industry has produced since the bad old days of the 1960s," observes Bradsher in the book’s final chapter.

Naderism at bay

The book is not an exposé in the manner of Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed, which in the early 1960s tore into and ultimately sank the Chevrolet Corvair and made Nader famous. High and Mighty is more of a survey of how SUVs got to be so large and so important, not only to Detroit carmakers but also to carmakers as diverse as Toyota and Mercedes-Benz. But when Bradsher stops to dig, the results are interesting — and likely to spark controversy once High And Mighty reaches bookstores this month.

Lutz, Bradsher recounts, played a vital role in the creation of the Explorer during the relatively brief period when he served as the head of Ford Motor Co.'s light-truck operations in the mid-1980s. At the time Ford was looking for a vehicle to compete directly and on the cheap with American Motors’ Jeep Cherokee, which was just beginning a long and successful production run. Lutz started the Explorer project, put a rising young engineer in charge of it and protected it from being killed by other Ford executives. By the time he left for another job at Chrysler, Ford's board of directors had already given the project the green light.

When Lutz took over the truck assignment it was considered a backwater. It had only 400 engineers who were intimately familiar with the day-to-day lives of the ranchers and farmers and contractors who actually bought Ford trucks. In contrast, some 12,000 engineers were then assigned to Ford's automotive group, Bradsher notes.

"Lutz insisted on ever more powerful engines mounted in ever-taller SUVs and pickup trucks with ever more menacing front ends," he notes in a key chapter that explores the psychology behind SUVs. "'Get them up in the air and make them husky,'" Bradsher quotes Lutz. The philosophy rings true even today at GM, where Vice Chairman Lutz ordered bigger tires for the Hummer H2 just last year.

Kings of the road

The Explorer and other SUVs launched in the 1990s, however, would not have become kings of the road had it not been for the now half-forgotten battle over fuel economy fought in 1990. The Bryan Bill, named for the Nevada Democrat who drafted the legislation, would have forced a dramatic increase in fuel economy, the book argues. A majority of senators favored the bill but it died for a lack of a single vote required to break the filibuster initiated by Don Riegle, then one of Michigan's two senators. A change in the tax code that slapped a luxury tax on automobiles but not SUVs also helped, Bradsher notes.

Bradsher says even major environmental groups basically slept while the SUV sales grew steadily during the 1990s, never offering a serious critique of the trucks. Consequently, they lost out on stopping some serious damage to the environment.

Once the Bryan bill died, efforts to raise fuel-economy standards on light-duty trucks and sport-utility vehicles faded and the Big Three's marketing apparatus kicked into high gear to sell SUVs, Bradsher observers.

Fantasies in sheetmetal

The marketing campaigns were built on a shrewd reading of the fantasies and fears of the target audience of Baby Boomers, who never ever drive off-road. Ad campaigns with sweeping views of mountains switched into high gear and SUV sales exploded, earning GM, Ford and Chrysler huge profits.

Bradsher goes through the controversy over SUV rollovers and comes down firmly on the side of those who maintain SUVs are not as safe as automobiles. The idea that SUVs are safer than cars is myth, Bradsher says; SUVs are clearly more prone to rollover than cars. Rollover accidents involving vehicles like the Jeep CJ and small SUVs made in Japan such as the Suzuki Samurai have been a center of controversy since the 1980s.

Less well understood by the public is the propensity of vehicles such as a Ford Explorer to flip over after striking a guardrail. In addition, SUVs are more likely to tip over if they strike a soft shoulder or have a blowout - the kind of problems cars can weather with relative ease, Bradsher states. In addition, SUVs are generally harder to control than other vehicles.

High and Mighty also takes the reader through the ins and outs of the Ford-Firestone tire debacle, Detroit's handling of the press and Detroit's "Green Prince," Bill Ford.

One of the most intriguing chapters of the book, though, involves the insurance companies. Insurance companies know SUVs are more expensive to fix and cause more damage in crashes than other vehicles, Bradsher intimates. But insurers have been willing to overlook the problem because SUVs are driven by some of their best customers - prosperous, middle-aged consumers who rarely place claims. Instead underwriters transfer part of the risks to other drivers, who are now paying more for their own insurance to pay for the damage and injuries caused by SUVs.

"The affluence of SUV owners and their political clout form a powerful combination that has made insurers loathe to raise rates," Bradsher states in the book that is bound to draw a big reaction from Detroit when it hits shelves next week.

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