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High and MightyThe sport-utility vehicle is a truly American phenomenon. Created for the American military, with an enviable record of service during the Second World War, it has undergone a remarkable evolution over the last half century. Today, it has become the tool of choice for weekend warriors and soccer moms, few of whom have or ever will see a battlefield, never mind the mountaintop vistas portrayed in the TV commercials pitching these vehicles.

Since the late 1980s, light trucks, in general, have staged one of the most remarkable sales booms in automotive history, and now account for roughly half the U.S. new car market. SUVs, in particular, are the fastest growing niche of all. Yet for all their fans and followers, there are plenty of people who’d love to see the “ute” vanish entirely. These are the vehicles that environmentalists love to hate because of their gas-guzzling, exhaust-spewing nature. Among safety advocates, there is a deep schism, though to some, SUVs could be classified public enemy number one.

It’s safe to say that Keith Bradsher, a correspondent for the New York Times, is not among the SUV faithful. Bradsher served five years as the paper’s Detroit bureau chief. During that period, he built a reputation as one of the most visible and relentless critics of the sport-utility boom—nearly garnering a Pulitzer Prize in the process. Now stationed in Hong Kong, Bradsher is continuing to take aim with his new book High and Mighty.

After working through the 464-page tome, one can’t help but come away asking whether the title refers to the SUV or to the author himself.

Taking issues

That’s not to dismiss the issues that the book, High and Mighty. SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, raises. Mr. Bradsher is right when he declares that the SUV’s “’green’ image is...a mirage.” Sport-utility vehicles drink gas at a rate unseen since the muscle car era of the ‘60s. Due to the immutable laws of physics, that means they belch plenty of carbon dioxide, the suspected global warming gas.

And there are certainly statistics out there suggesting SUVs are less safe than the typical American motorist might suspect. But the statistics and studies are far less black-and-white than author Bradsher implies in his book—and spent years writing about on the pages of the Times.

It should be pointed out here, to clarify my own position — that I am personally not a great fan of SUVs and am deeply bothered by their poor mileage in particular. Also note that I was author of several critical reports, some seen on the pages of TheCarConnection, taking the Times coverage to task. Mr. Bradsher and his former Times editor, Glenn Kramon, had the integrity to put themselves through my extensive and not always friendly questioning. It is never easy to take on a colleague, but on the Times coverage and High and Mighty in particular, it serves no purpose to remain silent.

Point by point

Mr. Bradsher has been and, with this book continues to be, far too willing to selectively ignore facts and reach for questionable conclusions in order to support his argument. A couple cases in point.

Run a big SUV, like the Ford Explorer, into the side of a small car and, not surprisingly, the driver of the ute is a lot more likely to survive; by a ratio of 27-1, actually, according to one study Mr. Bradsher has quoted repeatedly. But the ratio is not that much less if the offending vehicle is a Ford Crown Victoria. Indeed, it’s pretty lopsided when a small car runs into another small car. In fact, the overall death rate in minicars and subcompacts is the worst of any class of vehicle on the American roadway, even when they are involved in one-car accidents, which are actually far more common than fatal car-truck crashes. Yet when Bradsher and his former editor were asked why such mitigating facts weren’t even mentioned in passing, the answer was revealing: they declared the question of small car safety moot, long ago discussed and dismissed.

The irony? By making it seem SUV occupants were the most likely to survive, the Times’ coverage actually appears to have boosted ute sales.

Equally telling was the coverage Bradsher gave to the federal government’s planned test of car/truck “compatibility,” industry-speak for what happens when you drive an SUV into the side of a passenger car. In this case, the Times gave a well-placed full page story over to predicting what would most likely happen to the hapless dummy “driver” of the Honda Accord that would be rammed by an Explorer. Problem was, were the dummy alive, he actually would have walked away after the test actually was conducted. The follow-up rated barely 10 column inches buried inside the paper and ignored the earlier piece’s more damning forecast.

It’s not surprising Mr. Bradsher’s relentless and dogged pursuit of the SUV issue would have come to the attention of the Pulitzer nominating committee. Had there not been so many questions raised about the balance of his coverage, he likely would have won. In the end, sources suggest the committee was concerned enough about the controversy to look elsewhere.

Facts in question

The new book continues to follow the path of making the facts fit the theme. Where there are no hard numbers readily at hand, Mr. Bradsher does his own forecasting, suggesting the rise in the number of SUVs on the road is resulting in the deaths of thousands each year. His statistical skills are of serious question. In years past, he predicted that each year, as the number of utes on the road rose by the millions, the nation’s highway death rate would soar. True, it did increase last year—to 42,116, from 41,945 the year before. But average highway speeds have been rising, and the number of miles driven also rose, while about 60 percent of those killed were not wearing seat belts. It would be difficult to pin this on the SUV by the furthest stretch of logic.

Declaring that “SUVs are the world’s most dangerous vehicles” requires the reader to accept hyperbole rather than sound reportage. It is, in fact, quite interesting to note that High and Mighty takes aim at just about anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly buy into the author’s arguments. The automotive media come in for a full chapter. Some of the issues he raises merit a separate debate beyond the scope of this review. But to argue that the vast bulk of Mr. Bradsher’s former colleagues have been “seduced,” and can no longer report fairly on the issues surrounding the SUV? Well, that sounds more like sour grapes from someone who could not win the argument based on his reading of the evidence.

Along with the free review copy sent out by Public Affairs Books, the publisher includes a sheet of highly laudatory quotes from the likes of James Fallows and Ralph Nader. Their praise is not surprising, no slight meant to either esteemed gentleman. Unfortunately, a neutral but sharp eye might reveal enough of a bias throughout the book to raise concerns about all its conclusions. And that’s too bad. The SUV is, in many ways, a figment. Its reality has very little to do with the image portrayed in its advertising. High and Mighty often has the breathless tone its name suggests. It is more a jihad than the balanced analysis one might have expected of a New York Times correspondent. But in its fervor to create converts, it often alienates anyone but the true believer.

Like the once-mighty minivan, the SUV will almost certainly fall from favor — but its time is more likely to pass as it becomes the butt of jokes in the comic strips and on late night talk shows.

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