Poll finds public wants SUVs to get better gas mileage, divided over their safety

WASHINGTON July 4, 2003; Will Lester writimng for the AP reported that the majority of Americans say SUVs should have to meet the same fuel economy standards as cars, says an Associated Press poll.

But they're split on whether SUVs are safer - people tend to think they're safer for those inside them and more dangerous for people in other cars.

People were more likely to think SUVs are safer for their own occupants, by 42 percent to 35 percent, according to the poll conducted for the AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa. And they were more likely - by a smaller margin - to think SUVs are more dangerous for other motorists on the highway, by 45 percent to 41 percent.

The poll findings reflect the public's mixed feelings about SUVs, which industry analysts say are still growing in popularity.

For Mark Milano, an oral surgeon in Muskegon, Mich., buying an SUV makes a lot of sense.

``Most everybody I know, especially in a town, with kids, has an SUV in the family,'' said Milano. ``I think they're safer. SUVs are bigger, higher up off the road.''

He acknowledges that the bigger SUVs on the road may not make other motorists in smaller cars feel safer.

One of those motorists, retiree Don l'Heureux of Blue Hill, Neb., gets aggravated at the mere mention of SUVs.

``They're dangerous to other cars on the road,'' he said. ``I don't like them at all. They scare me since I drive a small car, they are wasteful on energy.''

He said he hears news reports regularly about SUVs rolling over on the highways.

The public's perception of whether SUVs are dangerous for other motorists went up steadily with respondents' education level. Republicans were more likely to defend the general safety of SUVs than Democrats were.

Just over half in the poll, 54 percent, said the fuel economy standards for SUVs should be the same as for other cars, while 33 percent said they should be allowed to get lower gas mileage. The poll of 1,001 adults was taken June 20-24 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Automakers now must meet a fleet average fuel economy of 20.7 miles per gallon for SUVs, minivans and pickups, a standard that has been in place since 1996 and could be increased slightly to 22.2 mpg for vehicles produced in the next few years.

The mileage requirement for other passenger vehicles is 27.5 mpg. Past efforts in Congress to require SUVs to meet the same fuel standards have been unsuccessful.

The support for higher fuel standards for SUVs comes at a time that the public appears less worried about the chances of a critical energy shortage in the near future.

About four in 10 said they're worried about a critical energy shortage in the next five years; half said they were not. Women were about evenly split on whether there will be a critical energy shortage, while men said by a 2-1 margin they don't expect one.

Just before the war in Iraq, just over half said they were worried about a critical energy shortage in the next five years.

Despite the mixed public opinion about SUVs, their popularity is growing steadily, said industry analysts.

About a fourth of the vehicles sold in this country in the last year were SUVs of some sort, said Mike Wall, an automotive industry analyst at CSM Worldwide. He expects SUVs' share of the market to grow to about a third in the next few years.

``There's no question they're hugely popular,'' Wall said. ``You're even seeing an evolution within the SUV group. We're seeing a movement away from the truck-like vehicles to ones that are more car-like - they have a lower step-in height. They ride more like a car.''

Those smaller SUVs would probably improve gas mileage, he said, adding that automotive companies have taken steps to improve SUVs' record on rollovers. Recent testing has shown the industry has more work to do.

SUV owners say they like the advantages - like feeling safer inside, sitting higher up for better visibility and being able to haul things - even though some people don't like the vehicles.

``People who don't have them do resent them,'' said Hazel Bern, a retiree from Sioux City, Iowa. ``I never talked to anybody who had one who didn't like it.''

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