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An unhealthy love affair Sport utilities: Bigger vehicles in larger numbers are fueling air pollution, safety problems.


AMERICA'S love affair with light trucks, sport-utility vehicles and minivans is excessively polluting our air, increasing the chances of accident injuries and wasting fuel -- all within government regulations.

Last month for the first time, sales of these bigger, heavier vehicles exceeded those of passenger cars in the United States. In 1999, these gas-guzzling behemoths will outsell standard autos.

These larger vehicles, which now account for about a third of the vehicles on the road, are classified as "trucks" under federal standards, allowing them to emit twice as much pollution as cars.

California last month ordered these truck-like vehicles to meet fTC the same standards as cars, beginning in 2004. It's a crackdown that should soon be adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency for the country.

When trucks were used for heavy hauling and off-road vehicles were used off-road, there was a reason for looser emission rules. Their numbers were small.

But 90 percent of the vehicles today are used to carry passengers. Their large share of the domestic market, and higher annual mileage, means their air pollution can no longer be ignored.

Safety concerns also arise. These high-riding, brawny vehicles dangerously limit the vision of smaller car drivers. And their higher headlights greatly increase the glare in other drivers' eyes.

In a collision, the truck's higher bumper misses the energy-absorbing bumper of a standard auto, inflicting more severe injuries on occupants of the car.

Data on these safety hazards are limited, but some manufacturers are responding. Mercedes places the bumper on its sport ute closer to the height of a car bumper; some companies are lowering the focus of "truck" headlights.

With cheap U.S. gas prices, there may be little call for cutting fuel consumption of these heavier vehicles. But with better air quality a national priority, these vehicles should not be allowed to drive through a legal loophole in anti-pollution standards.

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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