There ought to be a license for sport-utility drivers

John K. Teahen Jr. is the senior editor of Automotive News

In the first eight months of this year, nearly 2 million sport-utilities were sold in the United States.

Add them to the 20 million sold during the 1990s and, perhaps, another 3 million earlier models still on the road, and there are some 25 million SUVs rolling along America’s highways.

And if two members of the family drive each one of them, that means there are 50 million sport-utility drivers in the United States.

Numbers, numbers. So what’s the point of all this? The point is: Most of those people have never been trained to drive their heavy, cumbersome vehicles.

Something should be done, and I’ll have a few suggestions later in this column. But first:

Consider Janie and Joe: thirtysomething, married, with a lovely home and good jobs — an upscale Generation X couple.

Except for their wheels — their wheels were just plain stodgy, a Taurus and a Neon. Can you imagine those with-it Xers tooling about in a Taurus and a Neon?

It troubled them; they often talked about it. Then, one night, Janie’s face lit up and she blurted: “An SUV!” Joe thought for a moment and responded, “Of course! An SUV!”

Not to worry

So it was off to a dealership, and before long Janie and Joe drove away in $40,000 worth of sport-utility, complete with four-wheel drive and a sunroof (or moonroof, if you prefer).

One little problem: Neither Janie nor Joe had ever driven an SUV. Not to worry. They had logical answers to all the questions raised.

SUVs are bigger and heavier than cars.

J and J: “We are very good drivers.”

They tend to tip over during hard braking or evasive maneuvers.

J and J: “We’ll be very careful.”

SUVs injure car occupants in collisions.

J and J: “Oh, we would never want to do that.”

Sport-utilities are trucks, not cars. They handle differently.

J and J: “We’ll read the owner’s manual.”

OK, do you want 2 tons or more of sport-utility hurtling down the road at you, piloted by a couple of babes in the woods?

What’s to be done? Training and education will help. Special operator licenses should be mandatory. Drivers of taxicabs and limos must have chauffeur licenses. Pilots of big rigs must have trucker licenses. In many states, including Michigan, you must have an endorsement on your driver’s license to drive a motorcycle.

Special licenses

Any of those would be good. To be licensed for an SUV, the driver would have to undergo training and pass a road test.

Tying SUV eligibility to the operator’s license would ensure that every person who is likely to drive one has been trained.

Computers today do wondrous things. Maybe the states could program their machines to reject any application for license plates or tabs if the current registration does not specify that the owner of the vehicle has completed an SUV training course.

There’s another helpful idea, although it’s not as far-reaching as the operator’s license approach.

Some insurance companies offer premiums to policyholders who have not had a moving violation or an accident in a certain number of years. They also could offer spiffs to SUV owners who have completed training courses. Or the insurers simply could raise premiums substantially on

SUVs in the same manner as they charge considerably more to insure drivers under 25. The premium for an SUV family with an under-25 driver would be too awful to contemplate.

Are any or all of those measures unfair to SUV drivers?

Probably. But, on the other hand, aren’t SUV drivers a bit unfair to all the other drivers on the road?

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