California's secret SUV ban.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Aug. 4 2004 2:42 PM

California's SUV Ban

The Golden State has outlawed big SUVs on many of its roads but doesn't seem to know it.

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Still, some proponents of heavy SUVs will argue that these weight limits are outdated or that they should apply only to registered commercial vehicles. Nonsense.

Six-thousand pounds does the same damage to roads (not to mention pedestrians) that it did before the SUV craze. I don't know about your state, but California's ongoing budget crisis doesn't exactly leave cash to burn for road repair. (California's Legislative Analyst's Office estimates the average L.A. driver pays $700 a year in vehicle repairs because of crummy roads.) Yet despite the increased road wear their vehicles cause, heavy SUV owners can take tax breaks that mean they pony up much less to the tax system that funds street maintenance.

And frankly, a lot of these heavy SUVs are commercial vehicles by any fair definition. Remember that those owners who take the federal and state tax breaks are declaring they use their vehicles mostly or entirely for work. Often they're doctors, real estate agents, or small business owners. If California and the feds are willing to write off SUVs as work vehicles, why shouldn't the state also regulate them as work vehicles?

As it stands now, big-SUV drivers have it both ways: They use their trucklike status when it benefits them, yet they ignore the more onerous restrictions that "real" truck drivers face.

I think the Golden State has stumbled on a way to end this hypocrisy, and the rest of the country should take notice. Six-thousand pounds is a reasonable and established dividing line between passenger vehicles and trucks. (I even think it's an instinctual dividing line between SUVs that seem large, like the Ford Explorer, and those that seem absurdly large, like the Ford Expedition.)

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Why not classify SUVs under 3 tons as passenger cars and regulate them accordingly? Make them meet car gas mileage and safety standards, and let them drive anywhere cars can drive.

For vehicles over 6K, classify them as trucks, pure and simple. Let their drivers use more gas, roll over more often if they want, and take tax breaks. And ban them from residential streets. Make them stick to the truck routes, including truck lanes on highways. (Heck, maybe even require a truck driver's license to pilot one.)

California cities can start by enforcing their current 6K bans, or at the very least making it clear they apply to SUVs. Just as most of us instinctively check our speed when we drive by a police car, these luxury truckers should think twice about cruising illegally down Wilshire past a Santa Monica cop. If a few Tahoe owners got slapped with tickets for driving while overweight, the rest of them might actually start learning where their vehicles are legal.

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Update, Aug. 5, 2004: A number of readers have written in to take issue with my use of the gross vehicle weight rating of SUVs as the criterion for whether they violate a 6,000-pound weight limit. While I understand (and have already addressed) their point of view, let me elaborate.

Their argument just highlights the ongoing hypocrisy that surrounds big SUV ownership. The GVWR is the manufacturer's estimate of the vehicle's curb weight, or unloaded weight, plus its maximum payload capacity including passengers and cargo. A number of big SUVs, including the Toyota Sequoia and the Lincoln Navigator, straddle the 3-ton line: Their curb weights are under 6K, but their GVWRs are over (although in the case of the four-wheel-drive Navigator, the curb weight is 5,995 lbs.).