by Steve Lovett, Senior Editor
With fuel prices near all-time highs, and average fuel economy somewhat stagnant, much attention is being paid to the need of SUVs. Many are questioning the necessity of these and other light trucks such for family duty.
When I was a small child, I remember many road trips with my family of four. We’d load up ourselves and all our stuff in our 1979 Ford Pinto Squire 2-door wagon and traverse much of the countryside. We had plenty of room for ourselves and our baggage, and never had a complaint. And we weren’t alone. Many families were perfectly content with daily use and vacation travel in small and midsized cars. One of our editors at this publication can remember cross-country trips with 5 passengers in a Plymouth Horizon.
So why do today’s families drive vehicles that are so much larger than they drove 25 years ago? Have people become larger? While obesity rates are on the rise, this is hardly the reason. Do we carry more gear? Not likely. Not enough to make up the difference between a Pinto and an Expedition.
The hidden cause behind the shift to light trucks being necessary for family transport is an increased emphasis on child safety. Twenty-five years ago, kids didn’t wear seat belts. Booster seats were for restaurants, and nobody used child safety seats. As a result, we could do more with less. Back in those days, people believed that you really didn’t need to wear seat belts, especially if you were in the back. Back seats were a virtual cocoon, which protected its occupants against anything that could possibly happen. John Kapla, an engineer in Detroit recalls, “I remember there were three kids. On trips, one of us slept across the rear seat, one slept across the floor and the third slept across the rear package shelf.” And that felt fine, everyone was safe because they were in the back seat.
Fast forward. Today’s kids are growing up riding bikes with helmets and knee pads. When I grew up we had knee pads alright; they were called scabs! Child safety seats, booster seats and seat belts are now the norm. Britney Spears was publicly lambasted recently for driving with her infant in her arms. Today, there is a completely different outlook on child safety.
If you’ve ever installed one of these bulky child safety seats in a vehicle, it becomes very clear why larger, three row vehicles are now necessary. These seats are not only heavy and cumbersome, but they take up a lot of real estate. So much, that two seats in the second-row of a sedan almost touch one another in the center, and three abreast is simply out of the question. Not to mention space to store bottles, toys and other gear. John Kapla’s family today would abeslutely require a three-row light truck of some sort, likely a Caravan or Suburban. It’s simply a reality for families today.
Are today’s families buying utility that they don’t need? Are they buying SUVs and vans to keep up with the Jones’? No. They are simply doing what we did twenty-five years ago in the context of today. They’re buying vehicles that allow them to transport their families and their stuff with safety and comfort. Back then, safety was simply the back seat. Today it’s the added complexity of the child safety seat.