October 18, 2004

The 4WD Menace?

There has been a lot of media coverage recently surrounding a report undertaken by the AAMI insurance company which focuses on the use of 4WDs. The report, based on a survey of 1880 drivers, opens with this sentence; “ Half of Australian drivers (48 per cent) believe that four-wheel-drives do not belong in city areas…” Of course, 48% is not really half, but let's face it, if they'd have opened with “More than half of the drivers we surveyed believed 4WDs DO belong in city areas”, the report would have lost some of its sensationalist value – but then, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The report also makes the claim that “The figures show that despite the popularity of four-wheel-drives, not all drivers are convinced they are good for Australian roads”. What an interesting conundrum; to say on the one hand, that a large number of people don't think they are good to have on our roads, while at the same time referring to them as popular. Well, which is it? Are they popular, or are they disliked?

The survey makes a number of claims based on statistics. Let's look at some of them…

• 70% of regular car drivers feel that 4WDs are more dangerous for other road users. 

I'd be interested to know what they define a 4WD as. Sure, there are the real obvious 4WDs like Landcruisers, Patrols, Pajeros, Jackaroos, etc. But there are also a large and growing number of soft 4WDs from manufacturers like Subaru, Kia, Daihatsu and others who build a range of conventional-style vehicles that also just happen to have all-wheel-drive capability, mostly for safety reasons. Are these included in the group of “dangerous 4WDs” that menace the general public? If I drove one of those little Polish Nikis, or something similar, I'd probably feel a big lifted Troop Carrier might be a bit dangerous if it ran into me, but then again, so would almost anything.

Surely it's obvious to any thinking person that if you're in a little light vehicle you get hit by a great big moving object, it's going to hurt no matter what it is! But not every big moving object happens to be a 4WD, and not every 4WD is a great big object. Let's get straight what we mean when we refer to “4WDs”. If the argument is about great big moving objects being dangerous, then fine, lets' have that argument… but then, let's also include people movers like Taragos and Voyagers, etc, which are just as big and heavy as a lot of 4WDs. Why do we have to pick solely on 4WDs as being the problem?
Bottom line, whether another vehicle is dangerous to you or not depends an awful lot on what you're driving at the time.

• In a crash between a 4WD and a regular car, the people in the regular cars accounted for 64% of fatalities, while the occupants of the 4WDs accounted for only 18% of all fatalities. 

Is anybody actually surprised by this? There is a little thing called Newton 's Second Law of Motion, which basically states that the force at which an object hits is governed not only by its own mass, but also but the speed it is travelling. Now, hands up if you'd prefer to be shunted from behind by a 4WD doing 30km/h or a fully-sick Mazda rotary, mate, that slams into you doing 120km/h. I think I'll take my chances with the 4WD thanks very much.

I'm certain that one of the reasons that 4WDs have become more popular is that the statistics firmly support the fact that occupants truly are less likely to be injured. It may be just an unfortunate fact that if a big 4WD hits a smaller lighter vehicle, the smaller lighter vehicle is more likely to come off second best, but surely it will be just as bad if it gets hit by a 2 tonne people mover as a 2 tonne 4WD. As has already been noted in the previous point, your likelihood of getting hurt in a crash has as much to do with what you're driving, as it has with what the other guy is driving. Could it just be possible that the 18% of people who got killed driving 4WDs got hit by something bigger again – how about we start complaining about those vehicles? Again, it has nothing to do with whether the vehicle that hits you is capable of driving its front axle, but rather with how big it is and how hard it hits you.

There are many vehicles that are just as long, as heavy, and as wide as a number of 4WDs. As well as the typical 7-seater people-movers, there are many sedan-style 2WD passenger vehicles that are larger and heavier than many of the 4WDs being sold in Australia . Can you imagine an accident between a Suzuki Sierra softop and a Chrysler Voyager? Bags not driving the Sierra. But seriously, it's all relative and there are many 4WD vehicles that are smaller and lighter than the average road-going sedan or family car. The AAMI report completely overlooks this fact.

However, because there are a number of the larger 4WD vehicles which are big and heavy, it seems that if you want to increase the likelihood of being the less-injured party in a road accident, then based on the statistics above, then driving a 4WD (or any big heavy vehicle) may go a long way towards achieving that goal. Funnily enough, there might just be enough people who want to be the less-injured party that it might account for the growing number of people wanting to drive them. Meanwhile, it seems the more gentle altruistic folk out there are prepared to keep buzzing about in their Toyota Starlets and Mazda 121s so they can feel good about not hurting people too much when they hit them. God bless ‘em.

• 46% of regular car drivers feel that 4WD owners are more arrogant and aggressive on the road. 

Well, what do you say about this? Again, it depends on what you define as “a 4WD”. If people are getting all threatened and scared when a Subaru Forrester changes lanes in front of them, then they probably shouldn't be driving in the first place. Articulating what we actually mean by the term “4WDs” is pretty central to the whole debate. Personally I find 4WDers to be very well mannered on the road, and certainly in the country areas are among the friendliest folk you'll find. In the city, it may be that there are a few rude drivers who use the extra bulk of their big 4WDs to push into traffic or change lanes too abruptly, but I always find this to be the minority. (Ok, I know 46% really is a minority, but I'm humouring AAMI , OK ?) Believe it or not, I've actually seen drivers of cars, yes, regular 2WD cars, driving rudely as well! Why only today, I had one fellow refuse to let me merge, and another one insisted on driving slowly in the overtaking lane. Can you believe that? Regular car drivers acting arrogantly on the road! Perhaps their 4WDs were in being serviced?

I know a number of people who own both a 4WD and a 2WD, and I find it amazing the way they are able to switch from being rude, arrogant and aggressive drivers when they are behind the wheel of their 4WDs, to being nice, polite drivers when they get back into their “real” cars. What's that you say? It's not about the car, it's about the driver? What an interesting concept! I would have thought so too, but I guess those 46% of people don't see it that way.

• 59% of regular car drivers believe that 4WD owners should have a special licensing requirement. 

At first I was a bit unsure about this idea. After pondering it, I think it's an idea with great potential except for a couple of minor things…

Firstly, it' grossly unfair the way it targets a specific group of people who drive a specific type of vehicle which are no more inherently bad than any other type of vehicle. I agree that for anyone unfamiliar with driving a 4WD, especially one of the larger ones, there could be some form of education program to make them aware of the different handling characteristics of a 4WD. But it is probably just as worthwhile to have other education and licensing schemes targeted at very young drivers, very old drivers, timid women drivers, aggressive male drivers, powerful sportscar drivers, slow vintage car drivers, bloody Volvo drivers, truck drivers, motorbike riders, pushbike riders, pedestrians, etc. All of these groups have unique characteristics, but they seem to escape the suggestion of a special licensing requirement. Why only 4WDs? Sure, if you've come out an SS Commodore into a 100 Series Landcruiser, you're probably going to want to adjust your driving style a little to compensate for the added height and weight of the new vehicle. This may require some driver education (or re-education) in the correct ways to handle a 4WD vehicle. But surprisingly enough, that's what 4WD clubs do. 

Secondly, there would be considerable expense and red tape in setting up an additional licensing requirement. It would place an extra burden on an already overworked RTA and in the end wouldn't really prove much anyway. Getting people to become involved with a responsible 4WD club would probably have a far greater impact in getting the message out there about the right ways to handle these vehicles, both onroad and off. Perhaps some form of economic incentive, like a reduction in registration costs for 4WD owners who belong to a recognised and accredited 4WD club, would end up in a win-win situation for all concerned. But don't hold your breath - governments are not known for thinking win-win. 

Finally, it again comes down to what you class as a 4WD. Should Daihatsu Terios owners have to undertake this special licensing arrangement? What about Holden Cruze owners? Or Subaru WRX drivers? What's that you say? They aren't 4WDs? Oh yes they are my friend! I know what you meant to say – they aren't they vehicles you were talking about when you proposed a special licensing arrangement for 4WD owners. So let's get our facts right and clearly identify what it is we are really trying to address in terms of a vehicle's size and weight if these are the real issues. Then, if we still feel the need, we should come up with a licensing arrangement to address the actual problem instead of lumping all 4WDs and their drivers into some bizarre, one-size-fits-all category.

• 59% of 4WDs are registered in metropolitan areas. 

The undertone beneath this comment is always one of “why do people that live in the city need to drive a 4WD?” Apparently, if you aren't carrying a load of hay bales out to feed to milkin' cows, you don't have a legitimate reason to own and drive a 4WD. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 12.7 million of our 20 million Australian residents live in what they call Capital City Statistical Divisions. This represents approximately two thirds of Australia 's population (64%) as living in capital city areas. Are we really that functionally rigid that we should accept the argument that says if you live in a city area you have no need for a 4WD and if you live outside the city area you do? 

I find this extremely presumptuous; to suggest that as a city dweller I should not have the right to drive a 4WD! If I choose to spend my leisure time – my hard earned holidays – exploring parts of Australia that require the safety and capability of a 4WD vehicle, then who are others to judge as to whether this is appropriate or not!? In a perfect world, I might choose to own several vehicles and drive each one of them according to their specific capabilities, or even according to my whims. I might like to own a Mazda MX5 for cruising topless down the coast on those balmy summer afternoons, or perhaps a Toyota Tarago for those times when it would be nice to take my extended family somewhere. Perhaps a Holden Barina would be a sensible, economical choice for commuting to work each day. There are many cars I would love to own. 

But the truth is that few people are in such a position to afford the luxury of a garage full of different cars to drive as they choose. Most of us have to make a choice. We weigh up the alternatives, think about the sorts of things we might like to use a vehicle for, and then make a decision about the right vehicle to suit our needs. Some make that decision based on safety, some on economy, some on performance. Some never think about driving anywhere else but the blacktop, and some dream of going to exotic faraway places. Whatever people finally decide to drive, you can be sure they have probably given it considerable thought and are well aware of the trade-offs and compromises which their final choice inevitably requires. Some choose a 4WD. Some don't. If people choose not to drive a 4WD, that's OK, but how dare they make judgements on those people who make a choice different to theirs. When you pass a 4WD vehicle travelling along Parramatta Road , how do you know how much time it spends on the tar? How do you know it does not carry its occupants to the beautiful beaches of Fraser Island , or the majestic mountains of the Victorian High Country, or the desolate desert regions of Australia 's arid inland? Even if it is only used for such travel once a year, why do the owners of 4WD vehicles need to justify this to anyone else?

The real issue is smaller than you think.

People ask why 25% of 4WD owners have no intention of taking their vehicles offroad. In asking that question, they ignore the fact that 75% do! That's three out of every four 4WD owners that actually get out into the beaches or the forests or the Outback, and make the most of their vehicle's abilities. They represent millions of people each year who use their 4WDs to escape the city rat race and breathe in the freedom of the great outdoors.

If you cut through all the nonsense and twisted statistics, we all know what this report is trying, very badly, to say. The complaints about 4WD vehicles are really aimed at the “shopping trolley 4WDs” - Large 4WDs often driven by people who run around the suburbs doing the shopping or picking up the kids from school. Many of these people are hopelessly underskilled at driving a large 4WD. Sometimes they drive them because they just happen to be the family's second car, or sometimes they might be bought because they are seen as the safest alternative. In some of these cases, these vehicles really are bought for all the wrong reasons, and driven badly by people that would probably drive anything badly.

This AAMI report tries to target this small percentage of 4WDs bought for the wrong reasons and driven the wrong way by poor drivers, but then attempts to extend the premise to include all 4WD owners as part of this very small minority. It fails to adequately identify what it means by the term “4WD”, and because of this hazy definition, it makes sweeping statements and blankets all legitimate 4WDers with a range of unfair and untrue accusations. It neglects to give any credit to the real reasons why many of us own 4WDs.

This AAMI survey is nonsense. They should pick on someone their own size.

Chris Betcher
October 2004