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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C

Opinion Deflating SUV tyres is not welcome, but make no mistake - these vehicles are the worst

Sadhbh O’ Neill outlines why SUVs, even electric ones, are truly problematic.

LAST UPDATE | Jun 16th 2023, 4:20 PM

SUVs ARE AN environmental and social scourge. Whether we ban them in urban areas outright, as is being proposed in Germany, or we introduce new forms of taxation to regulate their weight, height and width, something must be done to stop the trend of excessively large passenger cars dominating our streets.

Recent figures show that 58% of all new car sales in 2022 were SUV type passenger vehicles. While those who buy them offer justifications such as the comfort of driving with greater visibility and a sense of safety, in practice it is the relentless advertising spend per vehicle that is driving up sales.

Estimates vary across the EU, but in France, in 2019 it was estimated that over €2300 was spent on advertising each individual SUV (a sum which would buy you a second-hand diesel car quite easily).

SUVs are not like the traditional car. Their designs are often aggressive and intimidating, and their marketing sells no-limits individualism which is exactly the opposite of what is needed to reduce climate impacts and related energy and resources equitably.

brownsuvcarparkedintheparkinglotbesidethe Shutterstock / JC_STOCKER Urban drivers of SUVs are heavily criticised for using the heavy gas-guzzlers in cities. Shutterstock / JC_STOCKER / JC_STOCKER

According to Professor Brian Caulfield of Trinity College, ever-increasing sales of SUVs are cancelling out the benefits of electric vehicles, contributing to rising transport emissions just when they should be going down.

This is because SUVs use far more energy than medium sized cars. Petrol or diesel SUVs for example consume roughly 20% more oil, and electric SUVs use more electricity which can be as much as 60% higher.

‘It’s ok, I drive an electric SUV’

Electric SUVs also require more critical raw materials for their larger batteries, plus more steel, plastic, rubber etc. And since more power is needed, re-charging electric SUVs adds to overall electricity consumption.

doubleovalexhausttipsonamodernsuvcaror Shutterstock / Anze Furlan Shutterstock / Anze Furlan / Anze Furlan

Over their full life, large SUVs use 63% more energy than lower medium (LM) sized cars. A particularly worrying trend is the ‘SUVisation’ of the car fleet through EVs.

The larger the SUV the more materials are used in their design and batteries, reducing the EVs accessibility and affordability across all income levels.

So pushing ever-higher SUVisation via EVs may also threaten public acceptance for the electrification of passenger vehicles, which is still needed.

Interestingly, studies have found that SUVs are involved in more law-breaking. A Canadian simulator study from 2007 got the same drivers to drive at high (SUV) and low eye height. It found that drivers choose to drive faster when they view the road from an eye height that is representative of a large SUV”. At high (SUV) eye height they also drove “with more variability, and were less able to maintain a consistent position within the lane”.

Dangerous to others

There are also major road safety concerns about the design of SUVs. A US study compared SUVs and regular cars in real-world cyclist crashes and found that SUVs were disproportionately likely to throw bicyclists forward onto the ground and inflict injury by running them over.

The size and shape of the SUV front grill is most responsible for differences in injury severity, with severe head injuries typical in SUV crashes.

With ordinary cars, the impact of a collision tends to be more distributed resulting in less severe injuries. And the same is true of pedestrian safety. The taller front end of SUVs tends to strike pedestrians above their centres of gravity rather than below them (as in the case of car impacts), which results in pedestrians being thrown forward and down.

modernsuvcarrunningonasphaltroadbicyclelane Shutterstock / SKT Studio Shutterstock / SKT Studio / SKT Studio

More and more research is becoming available that highlights the additional safety risks that SUVs pose to vulnerable road users. But it is the impact on road use that is even more insidious and damaging. SUVs literally take up more space on streets, squeezing out cycling and walking. These vehicles are the apotheosis of our car culture; gigantic status symbols that are choking our towns and cities, our children and our climate.

Tyres targeted

It is no wonder that the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis may lead some individuals to feel frustrated and desperate, believing that more radical actions are necessary than polite letters to the government.

They might argue that the harm caused by the continued use of SUVs and other carbon-intensive vehicles outweighs the damage caused by deflating tyres.

Targeting individual owners of SUVs might of course be counter-productive in the longer run, and undermine public support for the actions needed to improve road safety, cycling and public transport. Discovering that your tyres have been deflated by activists is understandably distressing and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, and I certainly don’t condone damage to private property.

But we do need to talk about regulating SUVs out of our cities. The damage that car culture and car dominance is doing is a crisis for the whole of our society but especially children who cannot safely walk to local schools, or play on their streets. People on lower incomes whose day-to-day experience of transport poverty should be front and centre in planning policy.

Many supporters of climate action would likely reject and condemn the actions of Tyre Extinguishers, emphasising the importance of nonviolence, legality, and maintaining public support. However, the climate action movement is broad and diverse, and it is crucial to recognise that climate action requires a range of strategies and approaches.

While peaceful and legal means is my priority to build broad public support and bring about systemic change, it is also important to recognise the value of actions that disrupt the “normal” world view that is driving climate breakdown.

Sadhbh O’ Neill is a researcher and lecturer in climate policy. She is the coordinator of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition but is writing this article in a purely personal capacity. 


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