On her way down from Evergreen during the snowstorm last week,
Randi Murray’s Suburban utility vehicle slid out of control on
the icy road, missed a turn and smashed a Geo Prizm.
“”I can’t believe I just hurt somebody,” Murray said,
surveying the wreckage.
But State Trooper Brenda Leffler, writing Murray a ticket for
careless driving, wasn’t surprised.
When winter driving gets tough, drivers of tough vehicles
That’s long been the suspicion about people steering
four-wheel-drive Cherokees, Troopers, Explorers, Suburbans,
Jimmys, 4Runners, Blazers and other so-called “”utility”
Now there’s evidence.
More than 40 percent of winter accidents along Interstate 70
this year involved drivers of utility vehicles, according to a
review of hundreds of accident reports at Colorado’s Department
By Colorado dealers’ estimates, utilities represent no more
than 25 percent of vehicles sold. The records suggest that many
of those crashing are driven by visiting skiers or newcomers to
the state who have yet to grasp the physics of snow.
The problem lies less in the vehicle itself than with drivers
seduced by advertising and image into thinking that their
machines are invulnerable because they’re heavier and have
Most four-wheel-drive vehicles can maneuver better than
other vehicles on ice and snow. Unfortunately, they can’t stop
any quicker on an icy road than the average gas-saving Honda
Civic. And the weight sits up front, so the back end tends to
slide out, police say.
Any skier with a sedan has seen it. Behind you, as you crawl
up the snowy interstate, the headlights of a four-wheel drive
behemoth loom bigger and closer. The driver blows by, churning
out plumess of ice and gravel.
A few miles later, the machine rests belly-up in a ditch.
You wave politely.
In Washington, Brian O’Neill is deeply concerned. O’Neill
heads the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the main
advocacy group for insurance companies.
“”We’re giving average motorists technology that isn’t likely
to help them at all,” said O’Neill.
“”People are obsessed with the notion that utility vehicles
give them freedom that they otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s a
And as more people buy sport utility vehicles, the drivers of
smaller cars suffer.
“”Little cars are nothing,” Rebecca Jensen said after her
Prizm was smashed by the Suburban driven by Murray, whose
Colorado license dates to July 1993. The Prizm’s horn wailed,
stuck. Acid fumes wafted from the battery. Jensen knew she’d
survived when she felt the pain in her broken arm. Her lips
puffed up like the air bags that probably saved her life.
No doubt, utility vehicles are technological marvels, made to
endure rough terrain. Four-wheel drive lets a driver accelerate
on snow like a cheetah, and advertisements play that up.
In one television commercial, a Chevy Blazer cuts deftly down
a snowfield through ski slalom gates. In another, a GMC Jimmy
effortlessly crashes through a driveway snow drift, kicking
white powder in the face of a neighbor trying to dig out his
Studies indicate that most utility drivers are urban
commuters, who routinely hurry. They pilot their vehicles
primarily through traffic, heading to the office or mall, not on
remote rutted roads. Southwest Plaza, not southwestern deserts.
“”People get going too fast in these vehicles,” said Capt.
Larry Tolar, spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol.
“”We refer to the drivers as stupid to the power of four.”
Consider what happened along Interstate 70 from Kansas to
Utah during March, this year’s snowiest month.
Most of the accidents occurred between Denver and Grand
Junction – the main road to mountain resorts. Of 513 reported
accidents, 223 involved utility vehicles. That’s 43 percent.
Colorado car dealers say utilities account for 15 percent to 25
percent of new vehicles sold. One of the worst pileups
occurred on Saturday, March 25. That afternoon, the highway
hummed with drivers headed down Vail Pass toward Vail to ski,
relax in saunas, meet friends for dinner or saunter through
Vail’s glittering shops.
Then the blizzard hit. Before they reached Vail, many drivers
spun out. They plowed into ditches. They flipped into
snowfields. They bashed into bumpers. Their vehicles littered
icy I-70 like a toddler’s scattered toys. State troopers
couldn’t begin to handle the mess.
Rescuers concentrated on injuries, and tried to clear
wreckage as fast as they could.
Fifty-eight drivers filed reports describing their accidents,
of which 18 (31 percent) involved utilities. Of those 18
drivers, 11 had out of state licenses or had received their
Colorado licenses recently. (Eight, or 44 percent, had
out-of-state driver’s licenses, while three, or 16 percent, had
obtained Colorado licenses after January 1994.)
A typical report came from Richard Van Vuren of Grand
Junction, the driver of a red and silver Ford Bronco II XLT.
He’d moved to Colorado from Kansas and had his Colorado license
for about a year.
“”… I hit a large solid ice. I downshifted immediately to
second gear and pumped my brakes. I lost control trying to avoid
vehicles ahead. After safely clearing three vehicles, I slid
into the back of a car …”
The vehicles crashing are Detroit’s hottest products. One in
every 10 new vehicles sold in America is a utility. That’s
nearly triple the market share a decade ago. Ford Explorers lead
the pack, entering the domestic fleet at the rate of 45 vehicles
In the Rocky Mountain West, America’s fastest-growing region,
car salesmen smile broadly when they spot on their lots
newcomers like Parker resident Steve Shanklin, who drove his
Buick Regal up from Houston when he was hired by the Promise
Keepers religious campaign.
“”My friends told me I need to make sure at least one of my
cars here has four-wheel drive,” Shanklin said recently, eyeing
a Jeep Grand Cherokee that cost $38,000.
“”It’d be safer. The first snowstorm was really a wake-up
call for me. I didn’t feel confident driving to work.”
What sells four-wheel drive, marketers say, is the cachet of
freedom, the implicit promise that you can go anywhere in style.
Before 1980, four-wheel drive meant boxy Jeeps, which were
about as comfortable as a coal mining cart. If you wanted
comfort, you bought a sedan. Problem is, Cadillacs can’t climb a
rocky desert canyon.
So automakers combined ruggedness with leather upholstery,
power steering, cushy suspension and compact disk players.
Buying a Ford Explorer “”connotes no compromises on the part
of the consumer,” Ford spokesman David Reuter said.
“”You get the space. You get the safety of being up high. You
can go off the road. You get just as many luxuries as in any car
on the market.
“”It puts your mind at ease in bad weather. You know that you
can get out of just about any bad weather instance without
getting stuck, without getting stranded.”
Colorado law enforcers say the sales pitch is part of the
problem. They view utilities as the vehicular equivalent of the
mountain bike that suddenly turns mild Mr. Peepers into Evel
For example, State Patrol Sgt. Gary Morehead recalls one
weekend blizzard near Eagle. His radio crackled out word of a
serious accident near Vail. It was a top priority emergency.
Morehead immediately floored his State Patrol Bronco, zooming
down the snow-packed interstate.
“”I was absolutely pushing my limit because we had this
serious accident,” said Morehead, who’s trained to take
calculated risks as head of the patrol’s motorcycle team.
In the blowing snow, his blue and red lights flashed and
police sirens wailed. The Bronco’s speedometer pushed 60 mph.
As Morehead gripped the steering wheel and listened for radio
updates on the accident, he glanced in his rear view mirror and
noticed a whirl of white snow storming toward him like a
Tasmanian devil. It was a Toyota sport utility.
The man driving it blew past Morehead as if he were a pylon.
“”He actually passed me!” Morehead says, still incredulous
at such audacity. “”I’m sorry, but that was ridiculous. I had to
go stop that individual. I needed to get to the accident. But if
I’d have allowed that guy to continue, he would have caused yet
Morehead said he believes television ads inspire drivers to
go fast in snow. “”Some of these ads showing utilities crashing
through snowdrifts are pretty remarkable.”
Automakers bristle at the suggestion that they are
responsible. “”We wouldn’t condone any type of advertising that
promotes behavior of that sort in our vehicles,” Reuter said.
“”Accident figures have a lot more to do with the driver than
to a particular vehicle.”
But the crashing adds to a growing list of concerns about
America’s love for utilities.
“”This is in effect becoming an aggressive vehicle that
punishes people in smaller vehicles,” said O’Neill at the
Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
The utilities are heavy and consume lots of gas. (As a favor
to Detroit, Congress recently froze mileage standards for
utilities.) In contrast, the latest fuel-efficient car designs
use lightweight materials. O’Neill and others are concerned that
people who might normally buy fuel-efficient cars may be
discouraged from doing so out of fear of being crashed into by a
“”We need to keep some balance in the size of our passenger
vehicle fleet,” O’Neill said. “”While big is good for safety,
to a point, we don’t want the fleet to get any bigger and
heavier because that puts everybody in smaller vehicles at
“”These vehicles are much stiffer than passenger cars.
Stiffness is not good for occupant safety. And stiffness makes
these vehicles particularly aggressive when they are involved in
collisions with other vehicles.”
Out on the highways, Trooper Brenda Leffler confessed that
her patience is starting to wear thin. After checking on
Jensen, calling for an ambulance, and handing Murray the
careless-driving ticket, she sped off to I-70, where another
four-wheel-drive vehicle had flipped.
“”You go to lots of accidents, and about all the vehicles are
four-wheel drive, and often they’re the drivers at fault,”
“”You start to get a little grumpy.”