Mary Dejevsky

Hit SUV drivers where it hurts: in the pocket

A 4x4 vehicle on the streets of London (Credit: Getty images)

Heavier cars will soon be hit with higher parking fees. Good. As an urban pedestrian and a car driver, I have two groups of enemies. The first are dark-clad cyclists and scooterists who weave invisibly around other traffic as they ignore their own expensively-made lanes. The other are the drivers of so-called sports utility vehicles – who dreamt up that euphemism? – commonly known as SUVs. A while back they were branded Chelsea Tractors; these cars have since expanded in all directions and might be more accurately dubbed Chelsea Tanks. A crackdown on these vehicles – as proposed by London councils, including Lambeth – is overdue.

It was a year or so ago that I started to find it more difficult to park neatly inside the white lines of the demarcated spaces of the car park at my block of flats. This was nothing to do with any change in my car, which I assure you has remained the same modest mini-Mercedes for a good number of years. It was because, while some of my neighbours were downsizing to stylish little e-Vehicles even smaller than mine, a good number were not. They had dispersed to ‘the country’ during the pandemic, but were now storming back, often at the wheel of truly enormous new steeds. 

The bigger the car, the less respectful and respectful of the highway code is the driver

To give them their due, these drivers – or their companies – were doing their bit for the environment; their new cars were invariably electric or hybrid. But they were more than making up for their low carbon emissions with straightforward bulk. The consequence was, to put it bluntly, that they couldn’t fit their car into one space and still get themselves and their shopping out. They had to spill over into mine. It is the same in any car park or parking area where spaces are marked. 

Now I was prepared to believe, for a while, that this might just be my imagination; that it might be that, because we humans tend to shrink with age, cars only seemed bigger by comparison. But this isn’t the case. A report recently published by the lobby group, Transport & Environment, finds that cars across Europe have been adding 1cm in girth every two years, and that sales of these swelling SUVs have been rising. They forecast that, without new regulations, these giants could become even more gargantuan, because at present there is nothing – in the law or regulation – to stop them enlarging to the dimensions of a lorry or bus. 

Thankfully, some local authority bigwigs are seeing sense. Islington council has already started charging drivers of electric cars more for having heavier cars with bigger batteries. Lambeth is also weighing up a similar scheme.

Unfortunately, these measures won’t do much to address another problem when it comes to SUVs. My personal behavioural research as a pedestrian and a driver is that, the bigger the car, the less respectful and respectful of the highway code is the driver. A change at the start of last year requires cars to give way to pedestrians crossing a road they are turning into. Guess who routinely ignores this provision? Yes, of course, it’s the cyclists (especially the delivering kind), but mainly it’s the SUV drivers. After a couple of near-misses, I have given up expecting the turning SUV to let me cross, and wait meekly for them to pass. If you value your life, I suggest that you do the same. 

Drivers on city roads will have encountered a similar lack of respect for other road users. The bigger the SUV, the more intimidating its driver’s behaviour. From barging into your lane without indicating (let alone asking nicely and saying thank-you), through forcing their way into moving traffic from a minor road, to tailgating in a 20mph zone, common courtesies have gone out of the window. You don’t have to be Donald Trump boasting to North Korea that his nuclear button is bigger than yours to know that, on the roads, too, size matters; might is right. 

Is a giant SUV really more eco-friendly than a smaller, older car?

To make matters worse, because this new species of SUV is often electric or hybrid, their owners seem to regard themselves as superior environmental warriors – superior, that is, to the likes of me in my antediluvian petrol-fuelled car. So anything goes. But shouldn’t size matter in environmental measures, too? 

Is a giant SUV really more eco-friendly than a smaller, older car? Is it right that fumes are all that counts? The batteries can make electric vehicles much heavier than some older cars, so the wear and damage to roads is likely to be greater. Their relatively short battery life makes them expensive to maintain, if not to fuel, and requires rare substances transported thousands of miles. And, it goes without saying, they take up lots of space.  

Yet in spite of these things, drivers of these vehicles have had it good for some time. Electric vehicles currently pay little or no vehicle tax. Some zero emission vehicles are also exempt from London’s congestion charge. Such perks have encouraged people to pay huge sums to buy these vehicles. But why should the rest of us have to make way for these supersized cars?

The road tax exemption may end or be altered from 2026, but until then it is we drivers of conventionally fuelled cars who are footing much of the bill for the maintenance of roads that are being mashed up by huge, heavy SUVs and who find ourselves stuck in traffic jams caused in part by the free pass given to electric SUVs to crowd into congestion zones. Given that road space is finite, should there be no penalty for size? 

This week, Parisians face a vote on whether outsize SUVs should be subject to higher parking charges. Of course, they should. And we in the UK should follow suit. The new SUVs may not pollute the city air, but their size fosters a climate of bullying that endangers the safety of all road users. Their exemption from some charges only encourages their use and ultimately leads to London’s streets getting more clogged up. Their weight means that they disproportionately damage the tarmac, and they reduce the parking space available for all. It is high time that the undoubted clean-air benefits from electric vehicles were off-set by a recognition of the equally undoubted costs – to the rest of us – of their ever more bloated size.