This is a Guest Post by Dr. Kirsty Wild, a Senior Research Fellow in the field of Population Health at the University of Auckland.
The problem barely requires articulation: just at a time when we are adopting Vision Zero in our cities and trying to carve out space for slower, safer transport modes, that space is being filled up by light trucks – double cab utes and SUVs. A kind of rapid ‘massification’ of our passenger vehicle fleet is occurring. Eight out of 10 new passenger vehicles are now light trucks (SUVs or double cab utes). Ten years ago none of the best-selling vehicles were in this category.
Car manufacturers such as Ford have been quick to point to ‘consumer demand’ as the root cause of this shift. But its scarcely believable that this phenomenon is the result of mailbags of letters arriving from members of the public imploring Ford to ‘make us giant cars please’. Light trucks have been and continue to be extraordinarily profitable for the auto industry.
The rise of light trucks (utes and SUVs) is generally understood to have been the result of a combination of strong marketing and weak regulation. When US regulators created new safety and environmental standards for vehicles in the 1970s, they allowed much weaker standards for light trucks, which they understood to be a fairly minor, niche market. However, weaker standards meant these vehicles were much cheaper to build, and therefore much more profitable. Gerald Meyers, the Vice President at American Motors at the time, describes the gold rush:
“It escaped regulation – we didn’t have to worry about fuel economy much at all, we didn’t have to worry about bumper height standards, we didn’t have to worry about side-impact standards, we didn’t have to worry about emissions standards…it was a dream for us”
The consequences are now becoming evident on New Zealand streets. The US automobile industry shifted their considerable advertising resources to creating new and expanded markets for these vehicles. It is estimated the US industry spent US$9 billion on promoting light trucks in the 1990s; and by 2018 85% of Ford’s advertising spend was devoted to promoting SUVs and pickup trucks. These vehicles were/are marketed to middle and higher income earners in urban areas, as providing increasingly scarce opportunities for more ‘adventure’ and ‘nature contact’, as well as increased ‘safety’.
What data we have available to us in Aotearoa confirms the US experience that these vehicles are neither safer nor remotely greener. The shift to larger passenger vehicles has largely wiped out the gains in fuel efficiency we have made in Aotearoa in the last 20 years. Our number one seller since 2015, the Ford Ranger, produces nearly twice the CO2 emissions of the Toyota Corolla (formerly number one).
Research also shows that New Zealand drivers generally have a poor understanding of the risks of SUVs, with a tendency to employ “naïve physics heuristics” that position ‘bigger [a]s better’ and safe. Yet the mass and height of light trucks, as well as their square accessorised front ends, present increased safety risks to pedestrians and other vehicle users, as well as unique safety risks to light truck drivers themselves.
Analysis of Australian and NZ Crash data from 1987-2017 showed that ‘other affected road users’ are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be killed or require a hospital admission if struck by a Ford Ranger than a lighter Toyota Corolla. Even the drivers of these vehicles themselves faced particular safety risks: a NZ study of vehicle crashes in 2015 – 2016 found that modern vehicles were generally safer than older models, but that light trucks (SUVs and utes) were more likely to cause serious or fatal injury in roll-over crashes.
The images above show examples of SUV/ute ‘overhang’ reducing the usability and safety of pedestrian spaces in Auckland and Dunedin.
There is also evidence that these vehicles tend to be driven in more dangerous ways. Risky, aggressive, distracted and impaired driving are all more common amongst ute and SUV drivers. New Zealand research found SUV drivers rate themselves as safer drivers, but are actually more likely to report undertaking unsafe driving behaviours.
What do about it?
We propose four strategies to reduce the use of light trucks as urban passenger vehicles. These strategies are based on tobacco control efforts that have used a combination of safer product design, pricing mechanisms, environmental changes, and advertising restrictions to successfully reduce tobacco use. The parallels with smoking are not perfect. We don’t seek to eliminate the use of these vehicles. However to meet our health, safety and emissions reductions objectives, we clearly need to discourage the use of these vehicles for everyday passenger trips in urban areas in particular:
First, moves to build in better safety and greater efficiency:
- Import controls might bring forward the ban on new fossil fuel vehicles over a certain weight
- Design standards, particularly those related to risks to others, should be greatly strengthened. In other jurisdictions bull bars and other dangerous front-end accessories are banned or more tightly restricted than in NZ.
- Registration of passenger vehicles could be limited to those that can safely fit within standard parking spaces
- Clean car standards can help to incentivise smaller vehicles. It is important that both double-cab utes, and Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (the likely early ‘electric’ mode for larger vehicles and SUVs and utes) are covered by these standards.
Pricing mechanisms might include:
- Remove the exemption from fringe-benefit tax for double-cab utes. It essentially acts as a government subsidy incentivising the purchase of heavier vehicles.
- Increasing sales taxes, vehicle registration charges and congestion charges by vehicle weight could be used to incentivise a lighter, safer, and less carbon-intensive urban fleet.
Action to foster health- and climate-promoting environments, such as:
- Steeper fines and more enforcement of illegal parking and ‘overhang’ in pedestrian environments.
- Parking strategies that explicitly rule out parking space inflation to cater for larger vehicles.
- Environmental design to discourage unnecessary driving in urban areas, given that larger vehicles appear to pose particular risks to pedestrians and cyclists, even in low-speed street settings.
Limits on advertising:
Given the very high levels of advertising spend by manufacturers of these vehicles, limits on this advertising, and particularly on the use of aggressive and anti-social themes, the portrayal of risky driving, and rhetorical and visual strategies designed to invoke a ‘green’ or ‘environmentalist’ identity in association with these vehicles will be necessary if we are to achieve a shift towards the use of lower-carbon, safer transport modes in our cities.
What else could we be doing to tackle dangerous vehicle inflation?
Acknowledgements: This article draws on a recent peer-reviewed conference paper: Woodward, A., Wisniewski, M., and Wild, K. (2021) Double-cab utes: Causes and consequences. Transportation 2021 Conference, 9-12 May, Hilton, Auckland. Many thanks to my co-authors for allowing me to use some of the material in this paper for this piece.