WASHINGTON – When Brenley Jacobs began searching for her first car four years ago she knew exactly what she wanted — a sport-utility vehicle.
“I always wanted one just because driving around the Beltway . . . I feel safer,” said Jacobs, 20, of Severna Park.
Both her parents drive smaller cars and Jacobs said she would get nervous when driving them on major roads. That’s not the case in the 1999 Dodge Durango her father bought her.
Jacobs is not alone. Women are the biggest SUV buyers because of the relative safety of the big vehicles, said Diane Steed, president of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice.
“They’re safe, they’re high off the road and they’re good vehicles,” said Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist and SUV owner.
But critics say that not only are SUVs not safer — they are more likely to roll over than smaller cars — they are much less friendly to the environment, sucking up large amounts of gas and spewing high levels of pollutants. Critics also say the size that makes SUVs safe for their drivers can make them a menace to other cars on the road.
Steed challenged the claim that SUVs are more dangerous for their occupants than other cars. She said that “SUVs do have a relatively higher rollover rate, but rollovers are very rare,” and deaths stemming from such accidents typically happen because people were not wearing their seatbelts.
Steve Oesch, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said that rollovers account for the highest percentage of SUV deaths, but he could not provide statistics on SUV rollover deaths and seatbelt use. Overall, he said, rollovers account for 31 percent of all passenger vehicle deaths.
Because of their stiff body frames and high bumpers, SUVs are dangerous to passengers in smaller cars, said the Rev. Jim Ball, a spokesman for the Evangelical Environmental Network’s “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign.
The campaign, which insists that purchasing a vehicle is a moral choice, promotes fuel-efficient, low-emissions vehicles, which it says have the lowest health impacts.
Cassie Traeger is terrified of SUVs. The University of Maryland student said she worries that if an SUV hit her Honda, “it would just . . . crush the car.”
Traeger said the sheer size of SUVs makes them difficult to see around if she is close to one in her small car. She said she gets really angry when she is trying to make a right turn at a red light and there is an SUV stopped beside her. The vehicles are so large “you can’t see anything” around them and so are forced to wait until the light turns green, she said.
Charlie Garlow, the air and energy committee chair of the Sierra Club’s Maryland chapter, said he does not understand why people need SUVs in the first place.
“You don’t need that big of a giant car to go food shopping in,” Garlow said. And “90 percent of the time” drivers are not hauling lots of people or lots of stuff, he said.
“It’s not that we’re (the Sierra Club) opposed to people having vehicles that can lug 18 people around,” Garlow said. It is the SUV’s poor fuel economy and high emissions levels that is the problem, he said.
But Steed said that “right now a large portion of SUVs . . . already meet the same (emissions) standards as passenger cars.” And anyway, SUVs “serve a number of functions that passenger cars just can’t,” Steed said.
SUVs have a better towing capacity than passenger cars and “if you’re looking for something that can get you through inclement weather, SUVs are the ticket,” Steed said.
Jacobs said her family uses her Durango to tow their jet skis.
“It’s not like we just have a big car,” Jacobs said. “We have other uses for it.”