SUV Rights?

Gregg Easterbrook has a piece in today’s TNR joining the growing anti-SUV bandwagon.

Perhaps the most tiresome defense of the SUV is, “No one can tell me what I can drive.” But, of course, government can tell you what you can drive and has been doing so for years. The Bill of Rights creates two specially protected areas of possessions: militia arms and just about anything–newspapers, magazines, books, movies, tickets to live performances–connected with political or artistic expression. But there’s no constitutional right to own devices society thinks you shouldn’t have (burglar tools, for example) or substances society thinks you shouldn’t have (dynamite, anthrax spores) or to operate machines that pose threats to others (you need a license to fly a plane or drive a bulldozer, and these licenses are hard to obtain). All kinds of products and purchases are regulated by law, and courts generally uphold such laws so long as they are reasonably related to the public good.

Well, sure. Motor vehicles are all regulated by government. The question is why should SUV’s–a rather murky class that ranges from RAV4s to Escalades–be treated differently than other types of personal vehicles? They’re basically pickup trucks with a built-in camper shell. Or a little better looking version of the station wagon. Indeed, it’s fair to say that SUVs are the “assault rifles” of the road–undefinable but everyone agrees that they’re bad.

Set aside the aesthetics of the SUV and the mega-pickup–most new pickup trucks are used as cars, not for commercial or work purposes. Think only of the fuel consumption. In 2003, new regular cars averaged 24.8 miles per gallon, new SUVs averaged 17.8 miles per gallon, and new pickups averaged 16.8 miles per gallon, according to Bush administration figures. And these are just “laboratory standards” of fuel consumption–calculations based on extremely unrealistic tests in which SUVs and pickups are accelerated gently with their air-conditioners turned off, and never, ever driven above the speed limit. Real-world fuel economy is usually about 20 percent less than the official government number, suggesting the real-world MPG of new SUVs is a pathetic 14 miles per gallon.

Aren’t fuel economy ratings for everything from a Toyota Prius hybrid to a Mack truck calculated in that manner? Or are people in SUVs more likely to employ air conditioning and poor acceleration techniques?

The idea that there’s a right to own a monstrous personal conveyance that wastes gasoline, causes road rage, and, most significantly from the public-good standpoint, increases traffic fatalities, is nonsense.

The study he refers to is conveniently unavailable to non-subscribers. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the trends he cites are correct. Why stop at SUVs? Why not ban all but the safest, most fuel efficient car? Isn’t a minivan–let alone a conversion van–just as large as an SUV? Is it the SUV that inspires drivers to road rage, or is it that the type of people who by SUVs are more predisposed to it?

Indeed, Easterbrook makes my rebuttal for me in his closing paragraph:

Cars need decent acceleration to merge or pass, but today’s average car has more acceleration than necessary for any non-road-rage purpose. High horsepower is used for speeding, drag-racing from stoplights, and cutting other drivers off, all antisocial purposes. The antisocial nature of the power in some new cars borders on obscene. The Porsche Cayenne Turbo (450 horsepower), Mercedes S55 AMG (493 horsepower and a “worst” rating from the EPA on greenhouse gases) and Jaguar S-Type R (390 horsepower) are among cars that do zero to 60 in less than 6 seconds, which is racetrack acceleration. Even some affordable, mainstream new cars such as the Acura TL (270 horsepower) have this kind of hostile super-speed. In real-world conditions, such speed is used solely to cut other drivers off–and to waste fuel, making the Saudis smile.

With the possible exception of the Porsche Cayenne, none of those cars are SUVs! Easterbrook seems to be objecting to expensive, high performance vehicles rather than to any specific vehicle type. They’re all more fun than anyone really needs, after all.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Law and the Courts, Political Theory, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Attila Girl says:

    I don’t think Easterbrook lives in California.

  2. Dodd says:

    This is a hobby horse for Easterbrook, one he’s been flogging for years now. Each time he turns his attention to it, the strain he’s under to “rationalize” what basically amounts to his personal distaste for this particular vehicle style becomes a little bit more obvious. He should stick to football and defense tech; he’s on much firmer ground there.

  3. Bithead says:

    Sorry, but from any angle… ANY angle…this anti-SUV argument doesn’t hold up. Since all these arguments are so easily defeated, it strikes me that what we’re seeing is more a political ploy, than anything else.
    An excuse for a bigger attack.

    An infamous socialist(is there any other kind) Adolf Hitler, had the Jews as an excuse for his attacks. The socialists of today have the SUV as their excuse. I refuse to be a victim as the Jews were, for the purpose of someone’s political ploy for power.

    You should refuse to, as well.

  4. Tom says:

    I think your definition of SUVs “undefinable but everyone agrees that they’re bad,” is somewhat off. “Everyone” is a pretty broad ranging statement – sure, a lot of people feel that what falls into “assault weapons” is definitely undefinable, and most people think assault weapons aren’t exactly right to be on the streets of America – but not *everyone* thinks SUVs are bad. Unless I’m misreading what you wrote?

  5. Joseph Marshall says:

    My private experience has been that the worst advertisment for SUV’s are the road manners of so many SUV drivers.

    For whatever reason, the SUV driving expereince seems to create the illusion for some that public traffic is one large video game which has to be played as aggressively as Doom 3. This is particularly true when combined with immoderate cell phone use in traffic.

    I notice also that the ads for the vehicles are frequently pitched to sustain this illusion.

    The gas guzzling will take care of itself–market forces and all that–but the testosterone poisoning is a public nuisance that cries out for suppression, even if suppression is unwise public policy.

  6. M. Murcek says:

    What’s the old saying about “someone who lies awake at night gnashing their teeth at the idea that somebody, somewhere, just might be happy?”

    Easterbrook’s screed says nothing about how inappropriate a Volkswagen Beetle, for example, is to the task of hauling a pleasure boat to the lake for the weekend. Oh, yeah, right, I forgot. We evil greedy people don’t deserve to have those, (boats or weekends at the lake)either…

  7. carpeicthus says:


    Are you an active parodist or do you just play one unwittingly? In any case, I think it would be a lot funnier if, when you argue that people who want to change government regulations of heavy vehicles are just like the Nazis, that you use multiple exclamation points and a lot more capital letters. To wit:


  8. Bithead says:


    The fact of the matter is, that these are people seeking power. Their path to power: Create a straw man, and slay him.

    The left is a group of fighters, with an agenda… and a group in search of an excuse to impose that agenda, as a solution to whatever problem happens to be to hand at the moment. Even if they created the problem in the first place.

    And your comment about ‘heavy’ vehciles is absurd… the problem isn’t these, but the rubber band powered ‘light’ vehicles better suited to some golf course somwhere. These are not safe even in one car accidents.Twice now, I’ve been at the scene of an accident… once where I knew the victims personally, and once where I happened upon an accident before the police arrived. Both fatal accdents, both one car accdients, and both situations where the person would have lived had they had something better than a Ford Fiesta in one case, or a Prius,in the other. In both cases, they valued a gallon of gas over their own lives, and paid the price…. And I’m left with the horrible memory of those two incidents.

    I will *never* drive such a vehicle, and I don’t give a hot crap WHAT kind of gas numbers it turns in. I pesonally drive a conversion van. I dive such a vehicle because in my view anything less doesn’t do the job. If you can’t understand that, that’s your problem not mine.

    Look, if you think we can come up with a vehcile that will get 70mpg carry 6 people, while towing around 6000lbs, without getting into trouble every time there’s a hill larger than a speed bump, fine. Market it.

    Meantime, leave mine alone… it’s safe for me and my family and it works. If you’re feeling unsafe, perhaps you might consider buying something better than an Altoids box with wheels, hmmm?

    You impress me at first glance as the type sitting out in the left lane doing 53mph in your wind-up toy, pissed off at the rest of the drivers on the road because they’re trying to get around your butt. I would strongly advise you get it on, get it over, or get it mashed.

    In short, get back into the real world, huh?

  9. LJD says:

    Testosterone poisoning, hmmmmm. I suppose road rage is a purely male trait, then? A lot of the people I see driving SUVs are Soccer Moms, loaded down with their kids and all the accessories that go with them. Of course, sports equipment, as we all know only contributes to the male need to wage war. Perhaps another argument against SUVs..

    Maybe their kids should play with clumps of dirt instead of toys, which take up too much space. It can be found in their own back yards, thus eliminating the need to drive at all!

    Seriously though, doesn’t a Federal ban on SUVs go too far? Step outside the “driving with the cellphone in traffic” example for a moment. Many residents of rural communities actually need to drive such vehicles, to access their homes and work in adverse conditions. Should they be reduced dinky hybrid cars with 13 inch wheels, when there’s two feet of snow on the ground?

    This is a perfect argument for representative, rather than popular, democracy. (Which I plan to hear about plenty after November 2nd, as we did in 2000) City people should keep their crazy ideas in the City. That goes for trucks, as well as guns. Besides, rural folk are a resourceful bunch… We’ll find some way around… “Hey, Jethro, check out my turbo-charged hemi Prius with a 12″ lift!”

  10. GP says:

    Easterbrook seems to be making a lot of silly arguments. It’s just not rational to be talking about banning SUVs and talking about acceleration rates and road rage, all the while blaming it on SUVs.

    The only real issue with SUVs that the government should regulate is the gas consumption. SUVs are not categorized as cars and thus are not subject to the reasonable fuel economy standards of cars. The car and gas lobbies furiously argue against this regulation. We have the technology to do it, and there would not be a large cost for it.

  11. Bithead says:

    One point GP brings up is the tendency to blame SUV for all motoring ills… and that’s a good point, and demonstrates a part of a trend;

    It’s not just SUV’s they’re after… any more than it’s the ‘rich’ they’re after.

    “Rich” is defined as ‘anyone making dime one more than I do’

    Thus are “SUV’s” defined as “any vehicle more capable than the Honda Civic I’m driving”

    It’s called ‘class envy’… an envy that they seek to codify by this “anti-SUV” nonsense and by tax policy, respectively.

    The incredulous objections seem to get rather vehiment when someone has the audacity to point all this out; as we will doubtless see, below.

  12. Dodd says:

    There’s no reason to leap, as Mr. Marshall does (above), to the assumption that there’s something about driving an SUV that leads to bad road manners. It is possible, to be sure, that there’s a certain amount of selection bias involved (i.e., that SUVs attract aggressive drivers – a charge to which this SUV driver will plead guilty [my philosophy: With all those defensive drivers out there clogging up the roads, somebody needs to be on offense]) but the more likely explanation is that, given their size and, frankly, the long-standing campaign against them in the broader culture, SUVs are just more noticeable.

    To illustrate: SUVs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they tend to be classed in our minds as one type. Boxy, utilitarian compacts don’t. So, when one sees someone in a little tin box of a Toyota driving like an idiot, one doesn’t tend to lump it in as an example of the class of “asinine compact drivers.” But there are certainly more of them out there than badly mannered SUV drivers.

    For myself, my hobby horse is minivans (which, while they get better MPG, aren’t nearly as safe as SUVs) and, as such, I see proof almost daily that their owners should be sterilized for the betterment of the species. That doesn’t make it true, but I could compile as compelling a collection of evidence as Easterbrook can regarding SUVs in very little time were I so inclined.

  13. zkippy says:

    Antisocial purposes? Well, then, off to the re-education camps with them, I suppose.

  14. Wow. What a load of horseshit! I own 2 SUV’s. My Wrangler which is lucky to get 18 MPG on a windy day and my Liberty which is around 23 MPG. The Wrangler is because I love my Jeep and I decided to rebuild it (with performance enhancements) and add an A/C so I could continue to drive it for years to come. The Liberty because I want my daughter and wife encased in 4000 pounds of steel cage with the ability to survive a head on crash with a Stary Destroyer.

    I have been called many things, but never a ‘rage’ driver. If anything, I drive uber-polite as does my wife. So much for the testosterone / road rage idea.

    Also, if anyone here really thinks there’s a design to get 100 MPG with the same amount of torque and power and that the gas companies are hiding it, I’ve got a large wad of tinfoil for your head. If you can design a motor that works that well, there’s more money to be made selling it than those seedy oil companies could pay you to keep your trap shut. Besides, with the internet, how could you keep motors like that under wraps?

  15. Fred Boness says:

    England is ahead of the U.S. in high gas prices and small light cars. I have been there several times over the last twenty years and watched that develop. I don’t want to follow their example.

    Brits drive as fast as Americans and crash about as often. Where an American’s brush with a guard rail is a “Darlington” event the Brit ends up dead in a car that is shredded. That’s the only word for the car that I saw: shredded.

    Brits have made the choice to go for lighter more dangerous cars to save gas; They have traded blood for oil. I thought we were not supposed to do that.

  16. Joseph Marshall says:

    I make no claim that all SUV drivers are impolite, male, or even that their purchase should be discouraged.

    Nothing would please me more, actually, than a completely saturated SUV market when average gasoline prices hit $5.00 a gallon. The best way to discourage conspicuous consumption is to let it become too conspicuous to afford.

    I have found it to be generally true that in America experience is the best teacher–far better, usually, than forethought. So let’s all taste the gasoline grandly while we can.

  17. JW says:

    Never, ever does it occur to liberals that their success in making “safety” the mantra in endless campaigns against everything from Corvairs to SAI’s is what spawned the SUV in the first place. Mandatory seat belt laws make people with more than two kids that DON’T own an SUV automatic lawbreakers. I may be forced to drive one myself once my third child is born, just so there are enough seats and seatbelts to go around.

  18. Bithead says:

    Never, ever does it occur to liberals that their success in making “safety” the mantra in endless campaigns against everything from Corvairs to SAI’s is what spawned the SUV in the first place

    Exactly why I said, in my first response:

    The left is a group of fighters, with an agenda and a group in search of an excuse to impose that agenda, as a solution to whatever problem happens to be to hand at the moment. Even if they created the problem in the first place.

    Interesting you mentioned the Corvair, given it’s far safer a car than the stuff we’re suppsoed to be driving today for gas milage.