Real America: The Great American Teen SUV Death Race

Real America Y'all!My first car was a 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. And yes, I am as shocked as anyone when I see that these things are now pimped out and are considered, no kidding, “cool.” I got the car with 160,000 miles in 1990. I paid a pittance, market price for such a piece of ssssss… uperb American engineering. Going by my friends, this was a perfectly average teenager car. Cheap. Old. Ugly. Unwanted.

But that’s the way it is for America’s young. You get the car that you can pay for. Most likely? It’s a hand-me-down SUV, as the secondary market lags behind their rise and now fall. Thanks to nearly two decades of booming SUV sales and a one-two punch of a recession and high fuel prices, cheap SUVs are now flooding the used market-even as their primary market dies.

With rising gas prices, a jump in the acceptance of environmentalism and the end of the More than We Need lifestyle, the Age of the New SUV, finally, finally, seems to be coming to an end. Even the poster child for the model’s dominance, Hummer, is kaput; it’s China’s problem now.

But the SUV market’s legacy costs are just getting started.


Approximately 70% of teens look for a used vehicle for their first car purchase. Around 60% of teens list “price” as the primary “driver” (ha) in choosing a car. Teens are the most dangerous drivers on the road, with a crash rate double that of 20- to 24-year-olds, three times that of 25- to 29-year-olds, and more than four times that of 30- to 69-year-olds. According to the CDC, auto crashes are the number one cause of death for American teenagers, accounting for more than one in three teen deaths. About 12 teens die every day in motor vehicle incidents.

SUVs are the most dangerous varietal of auto on the road, not only liable to roll over in a light breeze (okay not really) but also, in the hands of incapable drivers, to slaughter those in other smaller, lower, more vulnerable cars. Combine this rollover danger with the fact that not wearing a seat belt in a rollover is a death sentence; add to that the fact that teens are the least likely demographic to wear seat belts. (A 2007 Utah study found overall seat belt use by teens was 67 percent, while the overall state rate was 88.6 percent.)

You don’t need to be an economist to put all of this together.

One more exciting stat: An Allstate Foundation and National Organizations for Youth Safety survey found that 80 percent of teen girls and 58 percent of teen boys text while driving.

The danger of teens in SUVs is nothing new. Some may remember the preposterous 2005 “Esuvee” awareness campaign, put together by Attorneys General from all 50 states, encouraging safe SUV driving by teens. The commercials featured teens rodeo-riding some of the animals from Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. (Much of the program’s funding came from a $51 million settlement with Ford over the automaker’s alleged deceptive marketing practices for the Explorer SUV.) Did this Peppercorn and Bartle Bogle Hegarty Ltd. campaign make teen SUV drivers safer? The Council on Public Relations Firms’ “ESUVEE Case Study” says “yes”!

An online poll conducted by Equation Research, shows that two in three members of the target audience understand safety issues regarding SUVs better than they did before the campaign began and would moderate their driving accordingly. And, a survey by revealed that its users were 60 percent more aware of SUV safety issues as a result of the campaign… The day after launch, Peppercom achieved a rare PR hat trick, as ESUVEE-related segments appeared simultaneously on all three network morning shows (NBC Today Show, ABC Good Morning America, and CBS Early Show) for a combined audience of almost 12 million viewers.

I feel safer already.

As if market forces weren’t enough to put teenagers behind the wheels of SUVs, there are actual proponents of giving old gas-guzzling SUV deathtraps to teens instead of putting them on the market for pennies on the dollar., which claims 10 million visitors a month and to be “the leading destination for online car shoppers,” actually ran a piece saying, “So rather than give it away to a dealer, why not give it to your teen who’s crying for wheels? ‘With their size and weight, SUVs are still the safest vehicles for the novice teen driver,’ said Art Spinella, general manager of CNW Marketing Research. ‘Why not give it to your teen rather than have him cram into a Toyota Corolla?'”

Yeah, Art, why not?

Well, for starters, because there is a good likelihood that teens will be getting a Ford Exploder. The Explorer was for years the best selling SUV on the market thanks to its low price and availability. First manufactured in 1990, it became not only the best-selling SUV in America but also the world. There are millions of decade-old Explorers now on the market, available cheap. In rollover tests, the safest cars get a “5” rating. A “3” rating denotes a high likelihood of rollover. Many SUVs get a “3.” Only one vehicle has ever tested a “2.” It was the Ford Explorer.

In any city or rural area you will find teens doing their teen thing-cruising. And more and more of them are cruising in old SUVs. I have lost count of the number of rusted-fender Ford Explorers rounding my corner, loose belt squealing away, teens hanging out all the windows like mice out a cat’s mouth. As someone who grew up in a small town where at least two kids per high school class were killed or maimed between freshman and senior year, I shudder every time I see it. I will see more of it in the coming years.

….a 1995 Ford Explorer carrying four people from the Brian Head Ski Resort to La Verkin drifted off I-15. Troopers said the driver tried to bring the vehicle back onto the road, but it went off the right side of the freeway into the dirt…’The driver overcorrected to the left, which caused the vehicle to roll multiple times,’ UHP trooper Cameron Roden said Wednesday. A passenger, Danial Cole Morawetz, 19, was pronounced dead at a Cedar City hospital….


An SUV filled with teens speeding north on 136th Avenue left the road, rolled and sent Ryan Johnson, 17, flying from the vehicle landing in the road. Ryan Johnson, Holland Township, was not wearing his seatbelt in the 1997 Ford Explorer when the crash occurred… Johnson is in critical condition at Spectrum Health Butterworth hospital.

Oh and!

Two Klamath teens were injured during a rollover caused by a DUI on early Saturday morning 14 miles north of Klamath on U.S. Highway 101, according to a California High­way Patrol report…Van Mechelen was driving his 1996 Ford Explorer northbound on U.S. Highway 101 at an un­known speed and attempted to negotiate a right curve… The SUV flipped on its right side, ejecting Williams out of the vehicle and down the mountainside… Williams was not wearing a seat belt.

One unintended consequence of the “cash for clunkers” Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) is that it may save some teen lives. The program means many of these SUVs would avoid hitting the cheap used car market, and instead be traded for the $4,500 government stipend, far more than the market would allow. A great number of these clunker trade-ins are going to be SUVs, which is intended. (See the irony of Mr. Wrong’s 13-yer-old Honda Civic). The decade-old Ford Explorers, which average about 13 to 16 MPG, hit the CARS plan sweet-spot.

According to, the top five clunkers being traded in are:

1. Ford F-Series
2. Ford Explorer
3. Chevrolet C/K/Silverado
4. Jeep Grand Cherokee
5. Dodge Ram

The CEO of Hyundai, John Krafcik, told USA Today that Fords were the top brand showing up as trade-ins, especially old Explorer SUVs.

The CARS act requires that these traded-in vehicles be destroyed so that they cannot be resold in the U.S. or elsewhere. One mechanic describes how this is done: “We drain the oil, refill it with sodium silicate. Liquid glass. Start the engine and let it run until it seizes. Wait a few hours and do it again until the engine will either not turn over or will not idle. After that it goes off to its next horror.”

The CARS program also requires a big bad sticker be placed on the engine: “This engine is from a vehicle that is part of the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS). It has significant internal damage caused by operating the engine with a sodium silicate solution (liquid glass) instead of oil.”

So not only is this popular incentive program getting SUVs off the road and making sure they are not being replaced with more of their kind, but it might also be keeping teens, for however brief a period, from killing themselves in the most American of ways. Too bad then the latest news is that, in a bit of digital television switchover deja vu, the successful and popular one-billion-dollar program is already suffering from lack of funds and the Republicans would like to suspend it.

Abram Sauer writes about things that are far away.