A reader challenges Tom & Ray's idea to sue SUV manufacturers. Do you agree or disagree?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 2005

Dear Tom and Ray:

I've enjoyed both your radio show and your columns, until I read today's criticisms of sport utility vehicles. I understand your position that most people don't need them, and I agree that some people drive them recklessly, but to suggest that accident victims or their families sue the manufacturer is totally irresponsible. Almost any product can be used inappropriately. McDonald's says its hamburgers are good, but eaten exclusively or in inappropriate amounts, they'll make you fat. The answer is not to sue McDonald's; the answer is to be responsible for your own actions. The same logic applies to SUV drivers. There are pages of cautions in the owner's manuals about how to drive the vehicles. Many of the cautions should be obvious, but the manufacturers are forced to put the obvious in the manuals as a defense against people like you. You are welcome to your opinions, and you are fortunate enough to have a forum in which to air them, but you should use good judgment in expressing them. To suggest that manufacturers be sued for the irresponsible actions of their customers only invites frivolous lawsuits that will drive up the cost of automobiles for all of us. You should be ashamed. -- Kenneth

RAY: We're not that good at "ashamed," Kenneth. It's something we should probably work on.

TOM: We got a lot of hate mail about this, Kenneth, but we're going to stand by our comments. You are absolutely right that there's a personal-responsibility component when a moron drives his SUV at 70 mph in a snowstorm and takes out a family of four when he spins into a ditch. But we think the manufacturer, through its advertising agency, bears some responsibility, too.

RAY: Television is absolutely plastered these days with video of SUVs barreling through snowdrifts at high speeds -- throwing snow in all directions as they move unstoppably through arctic conditions. The message is clear: If you buy our vehicle, you'll be able to drive like this.

TOM: And so when someone DOES drive like that, is he entirely at fault for the results? Isn't the manufacturer also responsible for telling the guy that his vehicle is designed to be driven that way -- even when it's not safe to do so?

RAY: If McDonald's ran advertisements that said, "Eating nothing but McDonald's day and night is good for you," wouldn't you hold McDonald's at least partially responsible for the health of people who followed that advice -- and then had to buy SUVs because they couldn't fit into normal cars anymore?

TOM: And hamburgers are easier to understand than SUV handling. Most people know that if you eat nothing but Big Macs, you're going to wind up in stretch pants 30 days from now. But most people DON'T know what the limit of an SUV is. It's complicated technology. So, people take their cues from the images provided by the manufacturer.

RAY: They don't know that on snow, once you exceed the limit of the tires' grip, it doesn't matter if you have eight-wheel drive -- you're going off the road, and taking with you whoever is in your path.

TOM: So, we're all for personal responsibility. But it's our opinion that a number of manufacturers are deliberately misleading people. They're suggesting through their ads that SUVs can overcome the basic laws of physics -- and they can't.

RAY: Since people are dying as a result, we feel that these irresponsible ads -- and their misleading messages -- need to be stopped. And in America, like it or not, a successful lawsuit -- which hits companies in the pocketbook -- is the fastest way to stop irresponsible corporate behavior.

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