The Summers Imbroglio is Over

A Rant Against Big SUVs

Jonathan B. Wight

We live in a market system in which pleasing consumers is the goal.  But not all consumers have to be pleased all the time by market outcomes. 

Consider this a rant about the ubiquitous presence since the late 1990s of large SUVs—the Yukons, the Suburbans, the Expeditions, the Sequoias, the Escalades, to name a few.  They are wasteful and injurious, even as they earn huge profits for their makers. Yukon.Denali

Of course, as we economists would say, let the consumer herself decide whether it makes sense to use such a big car to make individual short trips to the grocery store and the mall.  Let the consumer decide, even if that means she will sometimes make a mistake. As my colleague Mark White would rightly note, there is no reason for paternalism to protect the consumer from herself in this case. But the problem with limiting the discussion to caveat emptor is the widespread externality imposed on others.  

Let me count the ways I hate SUVs because of their negative externalities:

1)    Big SUVs tend to be gas guzzling polluters. Since we do not have a carbon tax, users are not paying for all of that pollution. Auto companies lobbied to classify SUVs as trucks rather than cars, so that fuel economy standards could be reduced.  Drivers of monster SUVs are not playing by the same rules as everyone else; they’ve made an end-run around the rules.

2)    Even if there were a carbon tax to cover air pollution, the weight of SUVs is a separate issue as far as road maintenance and repair.  Heavier vehicles cause a disproportionate amount of road wear.  Some of this will be recouped through the gas tax, but not in states like Virginia where the current Republican Governor has repealed the gas tax.  Should there also be an annual road tax with progressive rates on weight?

3)    Weight is also an issue in accidents.  Behemoth SUVs are more dangerous for everyone else, and lead to a weight escalation for defensive reasons.  I may not need an SUV for my passenger or cargo purposes, but I do need an SUV to protect myself from your SUV.

4)    In addition to pollution and accidents, big SUVs drive up the demand for gasoline and cause everyone else to pay higher prices at the pump.

5)    Big SUVs make it nearly impossible to safely back out of a parking space if one is next to it.  The size and mass of it means one cannot see around it, and the dark-tinted windows mean one cannot see through it to on-coming cars or pedestrians. 

Renting a big SUV makes sense for special occasions when a big vehicle is actually needed.

Here’s hoping that multiple ethical frameworks can be used to persuade big SUV drivers to downscale.  


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