Road safety & 4WD
The high price for Australia's passionate embrace of the four-wheel drive is now being paid – a dramatic increase in fatal crashes involving off-roaders.
And it is not just 4WD owners who are ending up on the fatality statistics register. Drivers of conventional sedans and hatchbacks are also increasingly at risk of death due to the rising 4WD crash rate.
A recent report by the Australian Transport and Safety Bureau reveals that between 1990 and 1998, overall fatal crashes fell by 25 percent, but fatal 4WD crashes increased by 8 percent.
Fatal crashes involving 4WDs and other vehicles increased by 72 percent. The ATSB report puts the rise in 4WD crashes down to a lot more of them now sharing the road. Viewed in the light of their greatly increased popularity and usage, the increased incidence of crashes involving 4WDs could be seen as a statistical inevitability.
In 1990, for example, one in 12 new vehicle purchases (excluding trucks) was a 4WD. In the first two months of this year, the ratio of 4WD sales to passenger cars was one in four. We buy more 4WDs than Commodores and Falcons.
The ATSB report also cites a doubling of the kilometres travelled on Australian roads by 4WDs between 1995 and 1998 as a key reason behind the lift in fatal crashes. In comparison, the overall kilometres travelled in the same period rose by 4 percent. The report has sparked plenty of anti-4WD outrage. Its most damning statistic is that 64 percent of the victims in fatal multiple vehicle crashes involving 4WDs were in a normal passenger car. Fewer than 20 percent were in the 4WD.
There are some inherent factors in 4WD design, especially the larger wagons, which have influenced the ATSB's findings, but the human element plays a significant role.
Isaac Newton worked out long before the car was invented that a 4WD weighing up to 2.5 tonnes is, all other things being equal, going to make a mess out of a one- to 1.5-tonne sedan or hatchback, no matter how many air bags, seatbelt pretensioners or head restraints it has, or how well it scores in new car assessment program (NCAP) crash tests.
But not all 4WDs are two-tonne behemoths. Most of the recent sales growth has come from smaller, lighter designs that are closer in weight to a Commodore. This fact seems largely overlooked in the current debate.
The ATSB study found that 28 percent of 4WD crashes occurred at intersections. Passenger car occupants are particularly vulnerable in crashes where they are hit side-on by a large 4WD wagon.
Next time you're searching for somewhere to park your car in the shopping centre, take a look at the relative height of a large 4WD's grille – chances are it is level with your eyeline. Cars today are engineered to spread and dissipate side-impact forces through the body, but they rely largely on the floor structure to do it, on the basis that this is where another car will make contact.
But large 4WDs hit around window level, where there is virtually no structural protection against intrusion into the cabin. And if the 4WD happens to have a big bull bar...
Large 4WDs also have a much higher centre of gravity than cars, so their dynamic limits, cornering speeds, and the ability to change direction quickly, such as when taking evasive or corrective action, are lower.
Their tyres also tend to offer less grip, and braking distances are usually longer.
Some manufacturers' advertising implies that a 4WD can be driven like a sports car. The opposite is true.
The ATSB study found that 35 percent of 4WDs involved in fatal crashes rolled over, compared with 13 percent of cars. In single-vehicle accidents, 21 percent of 4WDs ended up on their roof; only 6 percent of cars came to rest upside down.
The Turramurra Tractor theory that 4WDs hardly ever venture out of the city seems to have been disproved by the ATSB findings. Four-wheel-drive owners are going bush, and more of them aren't making it back to the suburbs.
Sixty-eight percent of 4WD crashes in 1998 occurred on rural roads, up from 57 percent in 1990. The figure for cars remained close to 50 percent during this period.
An obvious reason for the increase in 4WD crashes is the ATSB's finding that the person behind the wheel is more likely than other drivers to have a blood alcohol content over .05.
One can only speculate as to the reasons, but the fact that 29 percent of 4WD drivers involved in fatal crashes were over the limit, compared with 26 percent of motorcyclists, 21 percent of car drivers and only 2 percent of heavy truck drivers, is going to add to the furore and the perception that 4WD owners are contemptuous of the safety of other road users.
Car drivers may find the ATSB's findings deeply ironic, given that they effectively subsidise the price of 4WDs. Imported cars are subject to a 15 percent tariff to protect the local car manufacturing industry, but 4WDs are slugged only 5 percent. This concession originated in 1975 and the 5 percent rate has applied since 1996. It was conceived as a tax break for miners, farmers and other rural-based commercial operators, who at the time were virtually the sole users of 4WDs.
Today's 4WD sales boom is fuelled by relatively affluent suburban families who use them as passenger car substitutes.
The net effect of the concession at retail level is that the buyer of a typical $45,000 4WD is enjoying a 10 percent subsidy.
The ATSB report emphasises that the increased presence of 4WDs on the roads, and not any serious safety deficiency in the vehicles, is the main reason for the leap in crashes and fatalities.
Many 4WDs are now built with car-style one-piece bodies, which are more efficient at absorbing crash impacts than the traditional separate steel frame chassis. The crashworthiness of 4WDs has improved in the past five years, according to NCAP tests.
However, the size and weight of the larger wagons is still arguably a major contributor to injuries and deaths when a car is involved.
We are now buying smaller 4WDs in great numbers, so the next ATSB study may paint a brighter picture. The boom is largely occurring in 4WDs like the compact Honda CR-V and Nissan X Trail, and medium-sized classes, which are more comparable with cars in size and weight and are called soft-roaders. Hopefully that's the way they'll be driven – and crashed.
All-terrain wagon registrations
1996 – 50,269
1997 – 71,268
1998 – 96,551
1999 – 104,058
2000 – 105,510
2001 – 116,236
Fatal crashes involving at least one 4WD
1990 – 5 percent
1992 – 6.5 percent
1994 – 8 percent
1996 – 11.5 percent
1998 – 12 percent
Who pays the price
Road users killed in multi-vehicle crashes involving 4WDs.
Passenger car driver – 41 percent
Passenger car passenger – 23 percent
4WD driver – 11 percent
4WD passenger – 7 percent
Motorcycle rider/passenger – 7 percent
Bicycle rider – 4 percent
Boom crash operators
In the multi-vehicle crashes involving 4WDs analysed in the ATSB report, 54 percent were between vehicles travelling in opposite directions, 28 percent at intersections, 10 percent between vehicles travelling in the same direction and 8 percent when overtaking or manoeuvring.
Weighing up two ...
Small hatchbacks (Holden Barina, Hyundai Accent, etc) weigh about 900kg to 1.1 tonnes, mid-sizers (Corolla, Pulsar, etc) 1-1.3 tonnes, Falcon/Commodore 1.5-1.6 tonnes and people movers 1.6-1.7 tonnes. European luxury sedans can weigh 1.9 tonnes.
... and four wheels
Compact 4WD wagons such as the Forester, RAV4 and CR-V weigh about 1.4 tonnes, mid-sizers (Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda Tribute, etc) 1.6-1.8 tonnes, the Pajero and Prado 1.8-2 tonnes. Some Toyota LandCruisers and Nissan Patrols are 2.3-2.6 tonnes.
Honda powers ahead
The biggest-selling 4WD in the country at present is the Honda CR-V. Medium 4WD sales were up 43 percent on the first two months of 2001, compacts were up 31 percent, while heavyweight sales rose by only 3 percent.
On the road again
The ATSB report shows we're spending a lot more time on the road. In 1998, Australians drove more than 173.3 million km, up from 166.5 million in 1995. The 4WDs covered 16.2 million km in 1998, up 85 percent on the 1995 distance of 8.6 million km.
You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen. It said, 'Parking Fine.'So that was nice.