Unwieldy Wheels

A study recently published by Trinity College in Dublin confirms what was already widely known: that '4x4s' are among the most dangerous vehicles on the road.

"Because you only live once" - that is the advertising slogan of Volkswagen; a statement that seeks to get across a message of pampering and prestige. The implicit message: don't be economical, allow yourselves "the very best," because you only live once. It is not likely that the message is: You only live once, so start gambling, take a risk.

The Volkswagen Touareg, the SUV which attorney Avigdor "Dori" Klagsbald was driving ten days ago, is probably not the worst of its type. Nor are the vehicle's manufacturers responsible for the deaths of Yevgenia Wexler, 23, and her six-year-old son Artur, who were traveling in a Fiat Punto. The reasons for the accident and the cause of the death of the mother and her son are not yet clear, and it is difficult to draw general conclusions from the incident.

However, despite all the reservations, this much can be said: The fact that a Volkswagen Touareg (called a "4x4," a "jeep" and, in the United States, an SUV - a sport utility vehicle) was involved in a fatal accident is not surprising and not unusual. A study recently published by Trinity College in Dublin confirms what was already widely known: that "4x4s" are among the most dangerous vehicles on the road.

The engineers from the university's mechanical engineering department who conducted the study show that 4x4s that are involved in accidents cause critical injuries and death to pedestrians at a rate four times greater than other vehicles. A very large proportion (a third) of all the cases of deaths in accidents in the United States result from cars overturning; the risk that passengers will die from the overturning of a 4x4 is three times as great as the danger to life from the overturning of a regular car.

Cars such as the Touareg, the Ford Explorer, the Cherokee Jeep, the Land Rover and others are built in a way that poses a special danger to pedestrians. Because of the high, protruding front bumper of these vehicles, the probability that a pedestrian who is hit by them will be killed is twice as great as the probability that he will be killed by a regular car traveling at the same speed. The high center of gravity and the large mass of the SUVs are also dangerous traits. In addition, they are gas guzzlers, pollute the atmosphere and are dangerous to their surroundings by their very nature - by their ability to traverse unpaved areas.

The story of the SUV is in large measure a salient story, albeit especially extreme, of the culture of brand names and its diseases. It is a case of marketing that creates a demand, a desire for a brand name, without any connection to the product's content and implications. Surveys carried out in the United States, and more recently also in Europe and Israel, show that most purchasers of 4x4s never go out into open terrain. True, the marketers of these vehicles cultivate the ideal of going out into nature - in the description of the vehicles' technical specifications, in the way they are photographed and in their names (Explorer, Cherokee, Excursion), they symbolize the thirst for the wide open spaces - but in practice they are parked, with aristocratic disregard, on the sidewalks of the city, or used to take the children to their enrichment groups, to speed along on intercity highways, look down from on high at the other vehicles on the road and make a big impression - and that is all. A big noise on wheels.

Brand names are now replacing what used to be called status symbols. It is difficult to think of a more expensive, more dangerous and more unnecessary status symbol than a 4x4 vehicle. For example, the Volkswagen Touareg that Klagsbald was driving is a status symbol (the best of its kind, according to the advertisers) that weighs no less than 2.6 tons, is 4.7 meters long, 1.9 meters wide, costs about NIS 500,000 and causes no little environmental damage, to put it mildly. But never mind. You only live once, you know.