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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Unless you drive one of the largest SUVs, such as the Chevy Suburban, the Cadillac Escalade, or the Ford Excursion, I'll bet you've watched them thundering down quiet residential lanes and wondered to yourself: W hy is that monster allowed on this little street?

Andy Bowers Andy Bowers

Andy Bowers is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

Well, here's a surprising piece of news. It may not be. Cities throughout California—the nation's largest car market—prohibit the heaviest SUVs on many of their residential roads. The problem is, they don't seem to know they've done it.

I discovered this secret ban after noticing the signs at both ends of my narrow Los Angeles-area street (a favorite cut-through route for drivers hoping to avoid tie-ups on bigger roads). The signs clearly prohibit vehicles over 6,000 pounds.

Hidden in plain sight
Hidden in plain sight

I knew a 6K pound limit ruled out a lot of the larger trucks that routinely rumble by my house, unpursued by traffic cops. But then I got to thinking: Could some of those bigger SUVs exceed 3 tons? So I did some research, and I hit the mother lode.

It turns out every big SUV and pickup is too heavy for my street. Here's just a sampling: The Chevy Suburban and Tahoe, the Range Rover, the GMC Yukon, the Toyota Land Cruiser and Sequoia, the Lincoln Navigator, the Mercedes M Class, the Porsche Cayenne S, and the Dodge Ram 1500 pickup (with optional Hemi). What about the Hummer, you ask? Hasta la vista, baby!

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If you look at the manufacturer's specs for these vehicles, you'll discover that they all have a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 6,000 pounds. (Click here for more on GVWR vs. curb weight.) Some are way over (the Hummer H2 weighs in at 8,600 pounds, and its older sibling the H1 at an astounding 10,300 pounds—I'm talking to you, Governator). Others manage to top the 3-ton mark by just a hair (the BMW X5 boasts a GVWR of 6,008 pounds). For comparison, a Honda Accord has a GVWR of about 4,000 pounds. *

It's no accident the automakers churn out so many SUVs that break the 6K barrier. By doing so, these "trucks" (and that's how they're classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation) qualify for a huge federal tax break. If you claim you use a 3-ton truck exclusively for work, you can write it off immediately. All of it. Up to $100,000 (in fact, Congress raised the limit from $25,000 just last year). Heavy SUVs qualify for similar state tax breaks in California (up to $25,000) and elsewhere. These vehicles are also exempt from the federal "gas guzzler tax" because they're trucks. (And you probably know that many SUVs are exempt from the tougher gas mileage and safety standards of cars because they're classified as trucks, but that's another story.)

Tax advisers actually warn their clients to make sure they buy vehicles that are heavy enough to qualify for the tax breaks. Some offer helpful lists of which SUVs will tip the IRS's scales.

Banned for good reason
Banned for good reason

Here's what few people seem to realize: By weighing in at more than 6,000 pounds, big SUVs are prohibited on thousands of miles of road in California. Cities across the state—including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Santa Monica—use the 3-ton cutoff for many or nearly all of their residential streets. State law gives them the ability to do this for very straightforward reasons: The heavier the vehicle, the more it chews up the roads, endangers pedestrians and smaller vehicles, and makes noise.

This isn't an arbitrary weight limit. 6,000 pounds has long been a recognized dividing line between light and heavy trucks. (For example, the Clean Air Act defines "heavy duty vehicle" as a truck with a gross vehicle weight "in excess of six thousand pounds.")

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