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Expose of SUV warts causes stir in Detroit

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It took a journalist to write a muckraking book about gas-guzzling SUVs and their safety problems.

Keith Bradsher, currently New York Times Bureau chief in Hong Kong, spent six years as the Detroit bureau chief, where he noticed that sport utility vehicles were beginning to dominate the auto market — and "no one seemed to be paying attention."

During a telephone interview from Hong Kong, Bradsher said he has tried to present a comprehensive view of the pros and cons of SUVs in his new book "High and Mighty: SUVs — The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They got That Way." He intends the book as a journalistic approach to what he sees as a growing problem.

Once the book hit the shelves, however, the auto industry came gunning for him. The public-relations firm Stratecom distributed a 15-page unsigned no-letterhead attack on his book, pulling quotes out of context, Bradsher said. "That kind of semi-anonymous attack is the way the auto industry reacts to things."

Within hours of the day the book went on sale, both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble had a number of one-star rating reviews and negative comments posted, according to Bradsher. "No one could have read the book by then."

He has no doubt that people in the auto industry understand the problems of the SUV but are cynical about them. "I quote them in the book. They felt they had to produce more SUVs, warts and all — and they were certainly aware of the warts," he said. "The automakers have been implicitly marketing these vehicles as safer than cars without making explicit claims they know would never hold up in court. Consumers have an almost instinctual faith that the bigger and heavier the vehicle, the more safe it is — and that is not the case. Design plays an important role."

There are "three or four sentences about SUV owners being vain and insecure" in the book, Bradsher said, "and that has gotten more attention than any other passage." But he considers himself a conservative business reporter with no ax to grind. "I'm not somebody who is a broad critic of business. There are differences between companies, and Ford has a better record on safety than other companies. What is needed is for people to pay more attention to what the auto industry is doing."

Bradsher believes that the unwieldy number of reporters interested in covering the development of the Internet in the early '90s took attention away from automakers. "Yet no other industry comes close to being 4 percent of the GDP. General Motors and Ford are each seven times the size of Microsoft. It's a similar story on safety. One in 100 Americans are injured each year in auto accidents.

"Any industry benefits from public scrutiny. That's what democracy is all about. And you have affluent people, including opinionmakers and those on the cutting edge of fashion and taste all switching to SUVs and not caring much what happens to all the people still in cars."

Bradsher is "gloomy" about the next few years, too. "It's getting much harder to drive a car these days. You can't see around or over or through an SUV very easily if you're in a car. That's providing a big incentive for people to buy SUVs. The recent auto show in Detroit was chockablock with SUVs. Everyone is planning on bringing out SUVs. It's going to get much worse."

He notes that even environmentalists loved SUVs at first. "They wanted to explore national parks and the great outdoors. They didn't examine the air pollution caused by SUVs, which give off five times the nitrate oxides that cars do. But we may be seeing the beginning of a push by environmentalists to get SUVs to follow the same rules as cars."

Any potential driver, including both men and women, prefer to "be seated high off the road," said Bradsher, even though that is a safety hazard. "The 'command position' they call it in briefings for auto writers. Women are now the key decisionmakers in the majority of SUV purchases. These vehicles are not being marketed for practical work purposes."

Bradsher said surveys also report that SUV owners are less likely to be "family-oriented, churchgoing people." Minivan drivers are at the opposite end of the spectrum. "They tend to be very caring people, involved in their communities as volunteers and who attend religious services, whereas people who buy SUVs are more concerned with how people perceive them."

What bothers Bradsher most is that, increasingly, SUV drivers cause deaths of drivers in other cars without endangering themselves. "You can make a libertarian argument that if people really want to risk their lives in a rollover, they should be allowed to do so. The strong counter-argument is that not many people are aware of how big the rollover rate is or how high the paralysis rate is. But the most reprehensible issue is people endangering their neighbors just for the sake of fashion. A person in a tall vehicle can override the ability of a car and smash right into the passenger compartment."

Automakers have belatedly reacted to this problem in a small way, Bradsher said, by installing hollow steel bars below and behind the bumpers, designed to keep SUVs from riding over cars in collisions. Ironically, they are called "Bradsher Bars," an nickname initiated by Ford.

In his 14 years at the New York Times, Bradsher never expected to write a book. "I wanted to be a reporter since I was 10 years old. This may be the only book I write in my life, but it astounded me that no one else was paying attention to these issues."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com

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