4x4s - the risks

A pedestrian hit by a large 4x4 is more than twice as likely to be killed than if they were hit by a normal sized car.

In the UK, there have been double the numbers of 4x4s sold in the first decade of the 21st century as in the last decade of the 20th century. More than a fifth of these were sold in the Greater London area, and only a fraction of them will ever be taken off-road [1].

At one time large 4x4 vehicles were the choice of farmers and landowners: generally people wanting to take them off road. However, in recent years the vehicles have grown rapidly in popularity and more and more of them are now appearing on our roads, and staying on the road rather than ever going off road. They are now the choice of vehicle for many families and used to drive to work, go shopping and on the school run.

Why the rise in popularity?

The rugged, powerful image of the 4x4 is undoubtedly one of the factors which attracts buyers. Driving an off-roader may make someone feel safe, in control and even superior to other road users - but it is for this very reason that other road users, particularly children on foot, cyclists and adult pedestrians, feel vulnerable and intimidated.

It is claimed that advertisers are deliberately targeting the urban user, with the incentive that the cars are cool and likely to impress others. What Car? chose a model of the Land Rover Discovery as its Car of the Year 2005, describing it as a family-friendly vehicle and a ‘hard-as-nails 4x4’.

What are the problems?

The main arguments against the use of 4x4s relate to the dangers of the vehicles to pedestrians and other road users and the damage caused to the environment.

Dangers to pedestrians:

Researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Rowan University in America discovered that somebody hit by a large 4x4 vehicle would be more than twice as likely to die as someone hit by a normal sized car [2].

The point of impact on the body is higher if hit by a 4x4, meaning it is more likely to cause head and chest injuries, rather than leg and lower body injuries. This particularly applies to collisions involving children, due to the height of their head and chest.

  • Generally a 4x4 is heavier, stiffer and shaped more bluntly than normal cars and is therefore likely to cause more damage on impact. Weight is a major factor in velocity.
  • The threat to pedestrians (especially children) is increased if bull bars are fitted on the front, as is the case with many [3]. From January 2006, it became illegal to fit bull bars to new vehicles, but many remain on older vehicles.
  • The size and design gives drivers a restricted view of the area immediately surrounding the vehicle. This means that young children are particularly vulnerable, as it is less likely that the driver will see them. According to the American independent body Consumer Reports, the blind spot for a driver of average height in a large 4x4 vehicle can be up to 28 feet [4]. This is a particular danger when taking a 4x4 on the school run when there are a high number of children on pavements and crossing roads, and when using a 4x4 for shopping and parking it in busy supermarket car parks where there are lots of families about.
  • In safety tests, 4x4s generally perform very poorly in terms of pedestrian safety. For example the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Suzuki Grand Vitara both received zero stars for pedestrian safety when tested by the European New Car Assessment programme (EuroNCAP) in 2005 and 2002 respectively. [5]

Dangers to other drivers:

4x4s are not only seen as a danger to pedestrians, but also to people travelling in other cars. With the increase in large vehicles and the super-mini in recent years, medium cars have become less popular. A recent study by Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), shows many crashes now involve a collision between a large car and a small one. In such a crash the person in the smaller car is 12 times more likely to be killed than the person in the 4x4 [6]. The study also shows the rise in sales of 4x4s and people carriers is causing more than 20 extra deaths and serious injuries a year among people in small cars when the two are in collision [7]. Research has shown that a car driver is around four times more likely to be killed if hit from the side by a large 4x4 than by a normal sized car [8].

  • The higher centre of gravity has been found in the past to make 4x4s more prone to rollover crashes (especially in emergency manoeuvres) [9].
  • People carriers and 4x4s are typically more than double the weight of small cars, and are therefore likely to cause more damage to the other vehicle [10]
  • The high bumpers on 4x4s tend to override the side-impact protection on small cars and penetrate the body [11]

Dangers to the environment:

As the number of vehicles on the road grows, the impact on the environment and human health gets greater. The major issue is pollution from engine exhaust gases. Traffic emissions contribute to global warming by releasing carbon dioxide [12]. There are more than 31 million vehicles on the road in Britain, 84% of which are cars. Each car is on average responsible for emissions of 4.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, a major contributor to global warming [13].

A major factor in how damaging a car is to the environment is its size and fuel efficiency. The less fuel you use per mile, the less damage you cause to the environment.

Environment charities have become increasingly vocal in their objection to the rise in 4x4s for domestic car use. Sustainable transport charity Transport 2000 says that car manufacturers need to work harder to promote environmentally-friendly cars as safe and cool [14]. The New Economics Foundation argues that 4x4s are so damaging to the environment they should feature warnings similar to those on cigarette packets, informing people that climate change can seriously damage health [15].

Greenpeace volunteers have visited dealerships across the country to disrupt sales of the worst offending 4x4s. They declared the Land Rover a climate criminal.

  • The Range Rover 4.4 V8 produces 389 grams of co2 per kilometre, which is double the rate of the Ford Mondeo Duratec HE Saloon (182 grams of co2 per kilometre) and over three times that of a Smart Cabrio Hatchback (127 grams of co2 per kilometre) [16].
  • Large 4x4s give only around 20 miles to the gallon, while the most efficient passenger cars give three or four times that. For example, fuel consumption tests show the petrol Range Rover Sport 4.2 V8 Super Charged model offers just 17 miles to the gallon [17].

Hazards specific to the school run:

The dangers already outlined become more apparent when 4x4s are used by parents on the school run. The school run is a chaotic time on many of our roads, and causes major problems especially in small towns and villages. It brings with it a 20% increase in rush hour traffic and therefore puts pedestrians (many of them being children at this time) at a greater risk. At 8.50am in the morning, nearly 1 in 5 cars in urban areas are taking children to school [18].

The main ways to make school run safer are:

  • Do not use a 4x4. If you insist on using one, park it well away from the school, somewhere it is safe to do so, and walk the last distance with your child.
  • Avoid taking a car altogether if you can: walk or cycle if it is safe to do so (a child shouldn’t walk on their own until they are at least 8, and should not cycle on their own unless they are at least 11, have received training, and there is a safe cycle route). Alternatively, use public transport if it is available.
  • If you have to use a car, offer to car-share with other parents.
  • Allow plenty of time: don’t speed, and go below 20mph when around a school or on school routes used by children.
  • Park sensibly and considerately. Do not double park, block driveways or stop on zigzag yellow lines.
  • Do not park on pavements. This disrupts accessibility for push chairs and wheelchairs.

What can you do to help combat the growing menace of the 4x4?

Many individuals and groups are now recognising the dangers of the 4x4 and are attempting to tackle the problem head-on, by targeting the owners and manufacturers of these large off-road style 4x4s. The main way you can help is by buying a greener, more efficient car - that’s if you must have a car. Using public transport, cycling or walking would be a better way to get around: when all costs of running a car are considered, it is cheaper, better for the environment and better for you.

For more information, visit:

Transport 2000 (www.transport2000.org.uk)
European New Car Assessment Programme (www.euroncap.com)
Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org)
Department for Transport (www.thinkroadsafety.gov.uk)
Alliance Against Urban 4x4s (www.stopurban4x4s.org.uk)
Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org.uk)
Institute of Advanced Motorists (www.iam.org.uk)
Kids and Cars (www.kidsandcars.org)
New Economics Foundation (www.neweconomics.org)
New Scientist (www.newscientist.com)
The Environment Agency (www.environment-agency.gov.uk)
Environ (www.environ.org.uk)
Vehicle Certification Agency (www.vcacarfueldata.org.uk)
Transport Research Laboratory (www.trl.co.uk)


[1] Department for Transport 2005, in ‘Green groups out to shame 4x4 owners’, Times Online, January 8, 2005
[2] Accident Analysis and Prevention (vol 36 p295), ‘The fatality and injury risk of light truck impacts with pedestrians in the United States’, Devon E. Lefler and Hampton C. Gabler, Department of mechanical Engineering, Rowan University, USA
[3] Transport 2000
[4] ‘The problem of blind spots’, Consumer Reports
[5] The European New Car Assessment Programme, ‘How Safe Is Your car?’
[6&7] Transport Research Laboratory, in ‘Little and large a lethal combination’, Times Online, March 21, 2005
[8] The American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in ‘Green groups out to shame 4x4 owners’, Times Online, January 8, 2005
[9] US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in ‘SUVs double pedestrians’ risk of death’, New Scientist, December 12, 2003
[10&11] Transport Research Laboratory in ‘Little and large a lethal combination’, Times Online, March 21, 2005
[12] The Environment Agency, 2005
[13] Environ, 2005
[14] Transport 2000, ‘Activists Briefing: Transport and Society,’ www.transport2000.org.uk
[15] ‘4x4s should have tobacco-style warnings’, New Economics Foundation, November 26, 2004
[16] Figures from Vehicle Certification Agency , www.vcacarfueldata.org.uk
[17] Figures from Vehicle Certification Agency , www.vcacarfueldata.org.uk
[18] Transport 2000

Tags: road deaths road crash