NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Special Privileges for SUV's

July 16, 2003

The U.S. government gave special privileges and exemptions to sport utility vehicles (SUVs) when they were first being manufactured, thus allowing them to take control of U.S. highways, says Keith Bradsher in his new book, "High and Mighty."

Congress classified the first SUVs as "light trucks," and because there were so few of them on the road, regulators and environmentalists didn't focus on them. According to Bradsher, favors followed:

  • In 1978 Congress enacted a gas guzzler tax to the cost of cars that exceeded mileage standards; this move affected sports cars but not light trucks.
  • After 1984, owners of light trucks could write the cost off if they used the vehicle for business purposes; luxury car owners couldn't.
  • The Clean Air Act of 1990 limited car emissions to 0.4 grams of nitrogen oxides per mile but allowed 1.1 grams for pick-ups.
  • After the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration increased the gross vehicle weight limit for light trucks to 8,500 pounds, SUV manufacturers began making cars weighing between 8,550 and 8,600 pounds, thus escaping fuel-economy regulations and some emissions standards.

In 2001, SUVs outsold mid-sized cars, and in the same year Congress voted overwhelmingly against higher mileage standards for light trucks.

To curb the influence of existing SUVs, the author recommends raising gas taxes, increasing car insurers' rates to penalize SUVs with bad safety records and prohibiting the use of "grille guards" on SUVs in crowded cities to prevent fatal accidents.

However, Congress must eventually eliminate the distinction between cars and light trucks so that SUV manufacturers will be forced to make cars and SUVs that follow tight emissions and fuel economy standards, Bradsher says.

Source: Martha A. Derrick, "Giants Roam the Earth," Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2003; based on Keith Bradsher, "High and Mighty: SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way," PublicAffairs, September 2002.


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