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!

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.")

But local officials either don't realize they've banned big SUVs, or they're hoping no one will make a stink. For example, Lombard Street   and Los Angeles ban 6K vehicles on numerous streets (including one of San Francisco's main tourist draws, the famously twisty Lombard Street). One L.A. city council member, Janice Hahn (the sister of L.A. Mayor James Hahn), recently proposed that fines for breaking this law be hiked from $50 for a first offense and $100 for a second to $250 and $1,000, respectively. Hahn told me her district, near L.A.'s huge port complex, is plagued by trucks cutting through residential streets.

When I informed Hahn that all the big SUVs also break the 6K barrier, she seemed surprised. "That's interesting," she said.

I asked if she thought the ban should be enforced against them. She answered bluntly: "I don't favor that." Even for 10,000 pound Hummers?  "I have my own issues with Hummers and SUVs, but this was not the intent of this ordinance."

She's right—it wasn't the intent. But that's because these weight limits generally predate the 1990s SUV craze that lured suburbanites out of their lighter sedans and minivans.It's the vehicles that have changed, not the law. These ordinances remain on the books and they're not obscure. They're clearly marked on signs in many California cities. In fact, three of L.A.'s affluent neighborhoods have the signs almost everywhere you look.

In Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena, vehicles over 3 tons are prohibited on every street unless specifically allowed. (Click here for a caveat about Beverly Hills.) The exemptions are a handful of larger roads meant to be used as truck routes. 

That's right—every single residential street.

It probably won't shock you to learn that Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Pasadena are also home to a large number of heavy luxury SUVs.

(Similar bans exist not only in cities across California but in other places around the country. Some examples I found online: Minneapolis and Edina, Minnesota; cities in Wisconsin including Wausau, Kenosha, and Brillion; and the Brooklyn Bridge, along with countless smaller bridges all over the nation. [Click here for more on other states.] The penalty in California is usually a fine.)

However, as I can attest from standing on my front porch, prosecution of the Golden State's ban on big SUVs isn't what you'd call robust. In fact, it's a contender for the least enforced traffic regulation in America. Since realizing the connection between weight limits and SUVs, I've noticed streets all over the L.A. area—including major ones like Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood—where the drivers of metal monsters thunder past clearly posted 6K limit signs without a glance. "I would be surprised if it's routinely enforced against SUVs," Santa Monica's transportation planning manager, Lucy Dyke, told me.

And don't expect to see stickers on new SUVs with warnings like "CAUTION: This Vehicle May Be Illegal On Many California Roads." At a GM dealership in Santa Monica, I asked a salesman (who declined to give his name) whether he informs buyers that the Tahoes and Suburbans he's selling them are banned on most streets in the city. "I'm not aware of it," he said.

I suspect the biggest impediment to enforcing these bans is political will—SUVs are wildly popular, and it will take brave city and state officials to challenge the right of residents to use their own streets. (Of course, like a FedEx truck, heavy SUVs are allowed to use local roads for a few blocks if they have business there—like going to or from a house. But in general, they're supposed to take the shortest possible path between designated truck routes.)

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.)

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.

******

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.).

However, those who take the federal and state tax breaks for their heavy SUVs are happy to accept the GVWR as their vehicle's official weight. After all, they must be over 6K to get the write-off. Yet now they're arguing that the actual weight of the vehicle as it rides along California streets may—may—be slightly under 6K. Since the weight at any given time could depend on how many bags of groceries are in the back, and very few residential streets have their own scales, we will never know. (Of course, this isn't an issue for the Hummer and some other vehicles, which break the 6K barrier by any measure.)

In other words, owners say their SUVs are over 6K when it benefits them and under 6K when it burdens them.

Here's my solution: Pick a number and stick with it. If owners of heavy SUVs prefer to use the lower curb weight, fine with me. I won't squawk about them cruising down streets with 6K limits, as long as the feds make them ineligible for 6K tax breaks. But if they want to hold onto their write-offs, and the ability to claim them using the GVWR, they shouldn't turn around and argue the GVWR doesn't apply in other governmental contexts as well.

Correction, Aug. 11, 2004:This piece originally listed the curb weight of the Honda Accord. For consistency, we now cite its gross vehicle weight rating. (Return to the corrected sentence.)