Big problem with our big car obsession
HERE'S what I noticed: Australia's road toll has stopped falling and is even creeping up. At the same time, sales of SUVs have surged, overtaking sales of passenger vehicles.
Now, I don't especially like SUVs. They're big and bulky and as I drive around in my station wagon, or ride round on my bike, they're often blocking my view.
They seem more dangerous than other vehicles.
So I began to wonder if all these SUVs on the road were having an effect. Are they the reason the road toll is creeping up? I rang road safety expert Associate Professor Stuart Newstead to find out.
Newstead slapped me down.
"Small to mid SUVs are like cars in terms of safety," he said. "A medium SUV is one of the safest things you can be driving."
While SUV sales have gone through the roof, that's partly because SUVs have changed. We used to call them four-wheel drives, because that is what they were.
Now some SUVs are two-wheel drives. They are not necessarily very heavy either. They are really just slightly taller station wagons, or slightly taller hatchbacks.
It's a classic case of correlation not being causation. Higher SUV sales aren't necessarily making the road toll higher.
But Newstead pointed out something I wasn't aware of. Utes are often more dangerous than SUVs, especially for other road users.
"This is a real problem because these commercial utes are being used as family wagons ... It is more the commercial utes that are the problem in our fleet than actually SUVs."
At the same time, SUVs were shrinking, utes have been growing. Your standard ute is no longer based on a Ford Falcon chassis. They are now largely four-wheel drive vehicles based on a truck chassis.
The biggest selling vehicle in Australia in September was the Ford Ranger, a 185cm high, 2250kg vehicle. (Data is for 4x4 Wildtrak doublecab 3.2L.) Ford don't even call it a ute. They call it a pick-up. (I guess now car manufacturing is over in this country we just get foreign cars and their foreign category names now).
Holden sells a popular big ute called the Colorado. When I asked a spokesman to comments about its aggressivity, he said that even small cars are designed to cope with a big impact.
"For example, Holden's smallest car, Spark, also comes with a five-star ANCAP rating (tested the same way as Colorado) and a bunch of safety features.
"What stands out here though is Spark's structural safety. It has a high-strength steel safety cage that is capable of carrying a roof load of four times its own weight - so much more than a Colorado, maybe even two Colorados!" said the spokesman, Mark Flintoft.
"Colorado is not your traditional light commercial truck. The whole range is rated the maximum five stars from ANCAP and it has a long list of safety features available including forward collision alert, lane departure warning and trailer sway control. It's even got a rear view camera as standard across the range to help with reversing in high risk areas."
Some utes get good ANCAP crash ratings. But those ratings, in my opinion, are not too comprehensive. They put most weight on how the vehicles' occupants perform in a crash. Less emphasis goes on how the other party in a crash fares.
Associate Professor Newstead says sure, big Utes can do well in a crash, but it comes at the expense of other road users. "They are safer if you hit a small car in them because you will just obliterate the small car."
Newstead publishes a major report each year that covers car safety. It is not based on theoretical crashes like the ANCAP ratings, but on data collected in real world crashes. This way, he can measure not only how the crash test dummies in a car perform, but what happens to other road users, be they other drivers, motorcyclists, or pedestrians.
Aggressivity measures what a car does to someone else in a crash. Utes are some of the worst performers when it comes to aggressivity. You really don't want to get hit by a Ford Ranger.
Utes coming onto the market in Australia seems to keep getting bigger. RAM Trucks now sell its Ram Laramie 3500 in this country, which is over two metres high and weighs over 3200 kg.
Newstead says the real downside of these vehicles is yet to come.
"The thing you have to worry about in this area is that in 10 to 15 years' time
these cars are going to be in the hands of P-platers … and they are incredibly sub-optimal for novice drivers, especially when they haven't got stability control - and commercial utes until recently haven't. Novice drivers are great at tipping them over and they don't go well when they tip over."
Some big cars are really safe for their drivers, and really unsafe for everyone else. They are like tanks.
Some small cars are terrible for their drivers but very safe for everyone else. If they crash into you they are cactus and you barely get a dint.
But it doesn't have to be like this. With good design, it is possible to make cars that do well on both. They are safer for the occupant and safer for everyone else.
The following graph has nine of Australia's top 10 selling vehicles. (Data wasn't available for the Mazda CX-5). You can see some small and medium cars do very well on both aggressivity and crashworthiness.
Of course, humans are not very good at worrying about the effect on other people when buying a car. It's an arms race where if everyone else is buying great big utes, the only way for us to be safe is to buy one too.
What we can do is encourage the government to install design rules that mean companies are forced to make cars with lower aggressivity. That way we don't have to face the tricky decision of whether we would ever trade off our own safety for someone else's.