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Beware the arms race on our roads

The rise of suburban four wheel drives has fuelled a fiery debate over road safety. Supporters claim one of the biggest attractions of these cars is their safety. Opponents contend that four wheel drives make the roads more dangerous for other drivers. Who is right? The answer, it seems, is both. According to a new report from the Monash Accident Research Centre, which analysed data from more than one million Australian crashes, four wheel drives reduce injury risk for their owners, and raise the risk to everyone else. From the perspective of their occupants, four wheel drives help save lives. By buying a four wheel drive instead of a medium sized car, your risk of death or serious injury in a crash falls by four in 1000.

Next, the Monash researchers looked at the damage that different types of vehicles inflicted on other road users. If you crash after trading in your medium sized car for a four wheel drive, the chance that you will kill or badly injure the other driver increases by 11 in 1000.

The net result? Four wheel drive buyers are making themselves safer, but the cost is being borne by other road users. For every serious injury or death that is saved by buying a four wheel drive, nearly three more result.

This simple statistic explains much of the rise in four wheel drive sales. With more four wheel drives on the road, other drivers begin to wonder whether they should buy one, too. In the US, this has led to the proliferation of larger and larger vehicles, in what University of California researcher Michelle White has dubbed “the arms race on American roads”.

At the core of the problem is that four wheel drive owners do not appreciate the full costs that their vehicles impose on society. Our publicly funded healthcare system spreads the costs of hospital care across taxpayers, and in Victoria no-fault or partially no-fault insurance spreads the cost of accidents across all drivers.

An anomaly in Australia’s tariff regime means four wheel drive buyers also benefit from a tariff rate 10% lower than the import duty on passenger cars—effectively a tax break for those who buy more dangerous vehicles. The solution? New four wheel drives should bear a tax equal to the difference between car tariffs and four wheel drive tariffs. And state governments should adjust vehicle registration taxes so four wheel drive owners pay the full cost that their vehicles impose on others.

One of the great successes in Australian public policy has been our ability to bring down the road toll. Thanks to random breath testing, seatbelt laws, airbags, and tough enforcement of speed limits, the fraction of the population killed on our roads each year is half what it was in 1985. By stemming the four wheel drive arms race, we can keep this deathly figure from rising again (contributed by Ian Scott; written by Andrew Leigh for The Age (Melbourne), July 2003).