What’s behind the war on 4x4s?

Campaigners not only loathe the cars but also the well-off working classes who drive them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Whenever the New Labour government launches a legal crackdown on immigration or brings in stringent security measures to protect us against terrorism, someone somewhere will accuse it of ‘pandering to Daily Mail readers’, to the presumed prejudices of a presumed mob. Now that chancellor Gordon Brown has announced that he is slapping tough(ish) new taxes on 4x4s and other cars that emit more than 250g of carbon dioxide per kilometre, I wonder if anyone will accuse the government of pandering to Guardian readers? Of caving in to the prejudices of bike-riding, organic-buying greens?

Because it seems to me that Brown’s war on 4x4s is driven as much by dodgy facts, a dash of fearmongering and a snobbish view of certain sections of society as is anything the government says or does on the immigration issue.

Of all the things that cough smog into the environment, it is striking that Brown singled out big cars. He announced, as part of a widely-lauded ‘green budget’, that ‘gas-guzzling’ vehicles (as numerous newspaper headlines refer to them) will have their excise duties raised to £210 or £215. At the other end of the scale, greener cars, those that emit the least amount of CO2, will have their excise duties slashed to zero. It’s not often I agree with greens, but those who have accused Brown of making a token gesture have a point. Targeting those who drive big, boxy cars-cum-vans, whether they’re people carriers, jeeps or sports utility vehicles, is not going to make a massive difference to the amount of carbon emitted on Britain’s roads – firstly because those who can afford to splash out £20,000 on a 4×4 are not going to go crying to their bank managers when they hear that an extra 45 quid is being added to their car tax; and secondly because, although 4x4s are becoming more popular, they still make up a tiny minority of the 30million cars in action across the UK.

Brown’s attack on big cars was less about taking practical steps to cut carbon emissions than it was an attempt to strike a chord with a certain constituency. Personally, I don’t drive so much as a scooter or a mini, much less a 4×4; I don’t even have a driving licence. But even this commuter-pedestrian can see that there’s more to the anti-4×4 measures than meets the eye. 4x4s have become the bete noire of the chattering classes and green-leaning liberals. PC-minded individuals who mind their language when talking about any group of people will let rip when it comes to those who dare to buy and drive a 4×4 – referring to them as ‘greedy’, ’vile’, ‘vulgar’, even ‘violent’, in the sense that their cars, if and when involved in an accident, are reportedly likelier to cause serious injuries than other cars.

Labour mayor of London Ken Livingstone says that mums who drop their kids off to school in 4x4s – or in ‘Chelsea tractors’, referring to that part of London where this kind of outrageous activity occurs – are ‘complete idiots’. The left-leaning think-tank, the New Economics Foundation, says 4x4s are ‘Satan’s little run-arounds’. A bunch of university researchers says they should have ‘health warnings’ stuck on them to ‘raise awareness’ about the danger they pose on the roads (what, so that pedestrians who find themselves in the firing line of a speeding 4×4 can quickly put their glasses on, read the health warning, and think ‘I’d better leap out of the way’?) (1).

Meanwhile, environmentalist groups demand even tougher taxes on 4x4s – Greenpeace wants a huge £1,800-a-year excise duty rather than Brown’s £215 – and for advertising of 4x4s to be banned. One group, the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s, is dedicated to harassing 4×4 drivers – it sticks fake parking tickets on 4x4s, hands out leaflets at those well-to-do schools where mums drive jeeps, and is now planning protests at Premiership football grounds because a large proportion of professional footballers get around in Satan’s little run-arounds (2).

Brown is trying to tap into this liberal outrage, the fashionable disdain for 4x4s, the transformation of drivers of big cars into hate figures for those who think we should live simpler, more ethical lives. But something about this campaign to drive 4x4s off our roads doesn’t add up. Campaigners will say that 4x4s emit more CO2 than other cars – that might be true, but they emit less CO2 than some everyday household appliances. According to research published last year, one cycle of a kitchen dishwasher releases around 756g of CO2, more than double that produced by a short spin in a Range Rover Turbo Diesel, which releases 299g per kilometre. Using a petrol lawnmower for an hour reportedly releases more than 1,000g of CO2. Why are there no campaigns against ‘evil dishwashers’? Does Mayor Ken think that people who mow their lawns with petrol-based mowers on a Sunday morning are ‘complete idiots’ too? (Actually, he probably does, come to think of it.)

London buses, which are seen by many environmentalists as the best alternative to having too many cars on the roads, emit around 1,406g of CO2 per kilometre, more than four times that choked out by the average 4×4. And to put things in perspective, a holiday for a family of four to Disneyworld in Florida, with all the travelling and consumption involved in such an endeavour, apparently releases a whopping 2,415,000g of CO2 (3). It would take 9,600 miles in a 4×4 to create that much carbon. Now I know that some greens would like to ban overseas holidays – or certainly want to see bigger, fatter taxes on cheap flights in order to force more of us to consider going to the Lake District instead of Disneyworld. But seriously, if we are going to measure everything we do by how much CO2 we create, then there are worse things than dropping Chloe off at the schoolgates in a jeep.

On safety, too, there is little hard evidence that 4x4s are as dangerous for pedestrians as some campaigners claim. Of course, no one wants to be hit by a speeding jeep, or by a bus, truck, van, black taxi or any other car, big or small, for that matter. According to Chris Patience, head of technical policy at the AA: ‘There is no shared characteristic of 4x4s that make them any more or less aggressive towards pedestrians compared to a “normal” car.’ (4) In some ways, it is claimed, 4x4s are not as bad as other cars when it comes to hitting pedestrians. Patience says that, ‘Typically pedestrians hit by cars wrap around the front of the car and their head hits the bonnet’ – and because 4x4s tend to have more space between the bonnet and the engine beneath it, they create something of a ‘crumple-zone for the head’ (5). That thought might not bring instant relief for the man or woman ‘wrapped around’ the front of a 4×4, but it challenges the idea that these vehicles are worse for walkers than others.

It strikes me that today’s anti-4×4 fervour has little to do with the vehicles’ alleged detrimental impact on safety or the environment. It is not what these cars do that winds up the campaigners, but rather what they represent. They are big brash symbols of conspicuous consumption, a way for flash men and women with a lot of cash to flaunt their wealth. And at a time when we’re encouraged to be meek and self-aware, constantly to consider what impact our behaviour might be having on the environment, buying a 4×4 and showing it off to the other mums or your mates at the football ground is the contemporary equivalent of a mortal sin. In a sense, it isn’t so much the car that the campaigners can’t stand – after all, they like big red carbon-producing buses – but rather the uppity nouveau riche people who drive them.

You can tell that this is about more than pollution and pedestrians if you listen to the language used to describe 4×4 drivers. They are discussed in the most vituperative terms. They’re not only seen as polluters, but as Bad People, as selfish and immoral individuals. The website of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s describes itself as a collection of ‘concerned citizens’ and 4×4 drivers as ‘The Bad Guys’. It argues that 4x4s contribute to ‘social alienation’ by making cities unwelcoming places for pedestrians and families, and says its aim is to make driving a 4×4 as ‘socially unacceptable as drink-driving’. This is clearly about more than curbing carbon emissions – it is about a certain view of who is a good citizen and who isn’t, an attempt to differentiate between those who are apparently socially aware (sensible car drivers and bike-riders) and those who are not (4×4 bad guys) (6). In the US, a website called ‘What Would Jesus Drive?’ (not a 4×4 apparently) says pollution from 4x4s ‘has a major impact on human health and the rest of God’s creation’ (7). So 4×4 drivers are not only anti-social – they’re ungodly too.

Also in the US, a green campaign group called The Detroit Project accuses 4×4 drivers of giving rise to terrorism. It has produced TV ads claiming that because 4×4 drivers use more fuel than normal cars, they are helping to keep America reliant on Middle Eastern oil, and thus provoking US intervention in the Middle East, and thus sustaining terrorist attacks against American interests. One ad has a talking head saying: ‘I helped hijack an airplane. I helped blow up a nightclub. I gave money to a terrorist training camp. My life, my SUV.’ (8) It takes a pretty twisted mind (and one that has bought into every conspiracy theory about Western intervention and every prejudice about hotheaded Middle Easterners) to make a logical leap from Randy filling up his SUV at a petrol station to Mohammad Atta crashing into the World Trade Center. Again, a moral judgement is being made against 4×4 drivers: they are accused, not only of pollution, but of creating a general instability across society.

Even the discussion of 4x4s and safety is morally loaded. The cars are said to be ‘aggressive’; they apparently look threatening and intimidating to pedestrians. In the absence of hard evidence that they are worse for pedestrians than other big vehicles, campaigners accuse 4×4 drivers of having an ‘I’m all right, Jack’ approach to safety – in other words, they sit in their high driver’s seat, protected by their metal cage, and don’t care for the safety of anyone else around them (9). Even here, the drivers are being judged less for what they have done and more for their attitudes, for coming across as arrogant, high and mighty, uncaring.

Strip away all the talk about pollution and safety and the anti-4×4 campaign is, in essence, a middle-class attack on what are seen as the vulgar habits and tastes of the aspirant working classes. Many of those who drive 4x4s – from the school-run mums with big hair and bling jewellery to those footballers who grew up in grey suburbs and now find themselves earning £20,000 a week – are new money, people who have a lot of disposable income and who want to flaunt it. Some of them probably even live in mock Tudor houses. From Abigail’s Party in the 70s to the criticisms of Yuppies in the 80s to the assault on big cars today, certain middle-class commentators and activists have long looked down their noses at those who aspire to make loadsamoney or who want to leap up a class or two. They frown upon those who get ideas above their station (or above their station wagon, in the case of 4x4s).

Today, these sentiments might be expressed in the PC lingo of being ‘concerned’ about big cars and their impact on the environment, but really it’s the same old snobbery – it’s still about defining new social mores and treating as pariahs those who fail to live up to them. Honk if you’ve had enough of it.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) 4x4s should carry ‘health warning’, BBC News, 26 November 2004

(2) Alliance Against Urban 4x4s

(3) Hot air about 4x4s?, BBC News, 19 May 2005

(4) 4×4 or against?, BBC News, 22 March 2006

(5) 4×4 or against?, BBC News, 22 March 2006

(6) Alliance Against Urban 4x4s

(7) What Would Jesus Drive?

(8) Hot air about 4x4s?, BBC News, 19 May 2005

(9) 4×4 or against?, BBC News, 22 March 2006

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Topics Politics


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