Why are so many of the vehicles I see stuck in snowy weather SUVs?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Feb 01, 2005

Dear Tom and Ray:

I recently drove from Mississippi to Oklahoma to visit my family for Christmas. I made my trip one day after a winter storm moved through the area. I saw several vehicles off in the ditch, which I presumed were accidents that happened the day before, when driving conditions would have been much more hazardous. After seeing a few of these unfortunates, I noticed something strange. Many, or perhaps even most of these vehicles were sport utility vehicles. Were they equipped with four-wheel drive? I didn't slow down enough to notice, but it got me thinking. You would think these vehicles would be the least likely to lose control on slippery roads. Were the drivers of these vehicles overconfident? Are the marketing departments of the car manufacturers overselling the "go anywhere, do anything" aspect of these vehicles (think of all those TV commercials showing SUVs bursting through snowdrifts, climbing steep trails, etc.)? I guess what I'm asking is if you've had reports of similar occurrences from elsewhere in the country. It would be easy to dismiss this as a case of Southerners being so unused to driving on icy roads that their lack of skills sends them skidding off the roads in droves, but that doesn't account for the preponderance of this one type of vehicle. -- John

RAY: You nailed it right on the head, John. The manufacturers sell these SUVs as invulnerable, unstoppable behemoths, not subject to the laws of nature or physics.

TOM: So when your neighbor Fred plunks down 35 big ones for his 4,000-pound Chevy Compensator, what do you think he's dying to do? Try it out! As soon as there's a snowstorm, he thinks it's a great time to race out and stock up on light bulbs.

RAY: Not only that, but he fundamentally misunderstands the capabilities of his vehicle. Four-wheel drive will help you GO in the snow. It won't help you STOP.

TOM: And it's limited in what it can do to help you TURN. SUVs, despite what you see in the ads, cannot repeal the laws of physics. When you exceed the limit of the tires' grip in the snow (which is easy to do), even eight-wheel drive won't help you -- because there's not enough for ANY of the wheels to grab onto.

RAY: Think about what happens when you walk in the snow. If you have dress shoes on, you have to be pretty darn careful and walk slowly. If you have on some big, waffle-stomper boots, you can walk with a little more confidence. But if you try to run, even with the boots, you could easily slip. And if you run and then need to turn or stop suddenly, get ready for a face plant!

TOM: Similarly, when there's snow on the highway and everyone else is driving carefully at 35 mph, and Fred goes barreling down the passing lane at 70 mph, when the highway turns left he keeps going straight. And into the ditch.

RAY: If this was simply a case of Darwinism, where people who act like morons get eliminated from the gene pool, we'd be fine with that. But sadly, these overconfident knuckleheads often take the lives of innocent people with them when they spin off the road in their 4,000-pound trucks.

TOM: So, here's our humble suggestion: The next time some innocent driver gets injured or killed by an SUV going too fast in bad weather, the family needs to sue the manufacturer of the SUV.

RAY: If manufacturers weren't overselling the capabilities of these trucks in TV commercials day and night, good old Fred might never have been tempted to drive like an idiot. He might have been perfectly happy to have better-than-average traction and simply get where he needed to go with more confidence in lousy weather. But since he sees his truck bounding across the arctic at 70 mph every night on TV, kicking up snow and leaving everyone else in its wake, he figures he should be able to do the same thing. Wouldn't you?

TOM: So, to the family of the next innocent victim of this irresponsible advertising, when you file your lawsuit against the manufacturer, let us know. We'll be behind you all the way.

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