Most UK buyers of off-road cars designed for rural use are urban motorists, worsening city congestion and air pollution.
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent. He now works with universities, charities and international agencies to improve their media skills, and with journalists in the developing world keen to specialise in environmental reporting
Cross-posted from Climate News Network
Three-quarters of all sports utility vehicles (SUVs) sold in the UK are bought by people living in towns and cities, new analysis shows. The largest SUVs, off-road vehicles designed to appeal to farmers and other country dwellers, are most popular in some of the wealthiest parts of London, where they aggravate existing problems of air pollution and heavy traffic.
Campaigners say this trend is the result of psychological techniques and dishonest messaging used by the vehicles’ advertisers.
Research commissioned by a think-tank, the New Weather Institute, and a climate charity, Possible, shows that 75% of all SUVs sold in the UK in 2019 and 2020 were registered to urban households. It found that the largest, most polluting SUVs followed a similar pattern, with two-thirds sold to people living in towns and cities.
These findings follow recent claims by carmakers and advertisers that SUVs are needed by people living in rural areas. One motoring guide describes the supposedly seductive vehicles in glowing terms: “The SUV is the fastest-growing car type in the UK, with more and more customers being seduced by their high driving position, practicality, and sense of security.”
One motorist’s surrender to seduction, though, may come at a high price to others who are obliged to share the roads with them and their off-road cars, both those in smaller vehicles squeezed for space and cyclists and pedestrians forced to breathe more polluted air.
Or, as the research puts it, quoting Theodor Adorno, the post-war German philosopher and social critic, “Which auto-driver has not felt the temptation, in the power of the motor, to run over the vermin of the street – passers-by, children, bicyclists?”
Rather than large SUVs being most popular in the areas for which they are most suited, Britain’s remote farming regions, the report says, six of the top ten areas in the UK for new sales are urban or suburban districts.
“One of advertising’s biggest manipulations has persuaded urban families that it’s perfectly ‘normal’ to go shopping in a two-tonne truck”
Although these vehicles have four-wheel-drive and off-road capability, the top districts for large SUV sales are three wealthy inner London boroughs: Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster, and Hammersmith & Fulham. On average, one in three new private cars bought in these areas is a large SUV.
Areas where the largest new cars are most popular also correspond closely with places where road space is most scarce and where the highest proportion of cars are parked on the street. The report points out that many of these cars are too big to fit into a standard UK parking space.
It includes an analysis of what it says is the history of car makers’ marketing messages around SUVs, for instance “get back to nature” and “help the environment”. The team behind the report argues that car makers have spent decades working with advertisers to develop persuasive but dishonest messaging.
It says this has created consumer demand for far bigger cars than buyers need, and calls for an end to SUV advertising, renewed commitments to tackle climate change by the Advertising Standards Authority, and for advertising agencies to reject future work from polluting SUV companies.
The report’s authors have written to the UK advertising agency Spark44, which runs multiple SUV campaigns, asking it to outline its plans for meeting the requirements of the UK government’s climate targets.
Andrew Simms, co-director of the New Weather Institute and one of the report’s co-authors, said: “One of advertising’s biggest manipulations has persuaded urban families that it’s perfectly ‘normal’ to go shopping in a two-tonne truck. The human health and climate damage done by SUVs is huge and needs to be undone.
“Just as tobacco advertising was successfully ended, it’s time to stop promoting polluting SUVs. The climate emergency and a new awareness of air pollution’s lethal impact calls on regulators to update our advertising codes.”
Robbie Gillett, campaigner at the climate charity Possible and the report’s other co-author, said: “Car companies have promoted SUVs as a luxury status symbol for far too long. And now our city streets are full of them.
“Advertisers lured us into focusing on the safety and spaciousness of these vehicles. and to overlook that these benefits come at the cost of other road users who consequently are less safe and have less space.”
The researchers say SUVs are a global and not a uniquely British problem. As larger, heavier vehicles, they are significantly more lethal in road accidents. The World Health Organisation says about 1.3 million people die each year on the world’s roads, with between 20 and 50 million more sustaining non-fatal injuries.
Especially in the global south, where car ownership is lower, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists make up almost half of those dying on the roads.
Research by the International Energy Agency has found that increasing demand for SUVs added significantly to global CO2 emissions from 2010 to 2018. Around 40% of annual car sales today are SUVs, more than double the figure a decade ago. The lure of the off-road car continues to spread.
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