SUVs: the scourge of the streets?

'Hulking vehicles' are more dangerous and polluting than smaller cars but offer a sense of safety

SUVs in parking spaces
SUVs are increasingly popular, making up almost half of global car sales despite their relative fuel inefficiency
(Image credit: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images)

How many SUVs is too many?

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is putting that question to citizens in February, said The Associated Press, "the latest salvo in her long-running campaign to make the city more friendly to pedestrians and the planet, and less friendly to cars". 

Voters will be asked whether to impose a "very significant" increase in parking fees for SUVs visiting the city. SUVs are "dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture", Paris's deputy mayor for public space and mobility policy said. 

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The European Transport Safety Council called for a ban on SUVs in populated areas after a Land Rover crashed through a London school fence in July, after which two children died. "Do people need two-and-a-half-tonne vehicles to take their children to school?" asked a spokesperson.

'Safe space in a harsh world'

The popularity of SUVs has risen sharply in recent years, going from a 7% share of the EU car market in 2008 to 36% in 2018, according to a report by Transport and Environment. This has "significant consequences for the demand for key metals and road safety", Ralph Palmer, from Transport and Environment, told the i news site. 

Totalling around 330 million worldwide, SUVs now make up almost half of global car sales, according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), despite other car sales falling.

While there is no exact definition of what constitutes an SUV (short for sports utility vehicle), they are much bigger than standard cars – but their "defining characteristic" is that "they all make a nod towards off-road capability, even if most don't have it", Andrew Antony said in The Observer

That is "the cardinal conceit of SUVs". Although "the overwhelming majority" are found in cities, they "trade on a familiarity with safaris and game shooting". But the marketing message for women, by contrast, is one of "security and protection", said Antony, "offering a safe space in a harsh world". 

SUVs aren't necessarily the problem, said i news. It's fair to distinguish "gargantuan cars" like some Land Rovers from "smaller, lighter, more efficient SUVs built for families with no mud-plugging pretentions". The term SUV applies to the 2.6-tonne Rolls-Royce Cullinan as much as it does to a small estate car. 

The spread of SUVs "presents a delicate social conundrum" – how to balance personal freedom with "everyone else's freedom from harm".

'Unique danger on our cities' roads'

SUVs represent "a unique danger on our cities' roads", said Laura Laker in The Guardian. While drivers are involved in fewer collisions overall, when they do crash into children the collisions are "eight times more likely to be fatal" than those involving passenger cars, according to research published in the Journal of Safety Research last year. 

SUVs also produce almost 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year globally, said the IEA. They are about a quarter less fuel efficient than a standard car.

Although these "hulking vehicles" were designed for off-road driving, in the UK three-quarters of these "end up polluting city streets", mostly in the affluent west London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Laker said.

"The horse may have bolted on SUV ownership, but we do have tools at our disposal to discourage people from driving these dangerous vehicles. Now is the time to put our foot down."

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