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Is an SUV a truck? The debate picks up steam

Hefty Hummers, heavy Chevys travel roads limited to lighter vehicles

By Michael Gormley
Albany Times Union

ALBANY – "What's a truck?"

The answer to that question posed by a New York assemblyman could end up restricting which highways and streets increasingly larger sport utility vehicles will be allowed to travel in New York.

Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette's weighty question is the first shot of its kind nationally across the hood of the biggest SUVs. He said SUVs over 6,000 pounds routinely violate federal and state truck route laws pegged to vehicle weight and should be held to the same standards as their commercial cousins.

"Where does a passenger vehicle end and a truck begin?" the New York City Democrat asked. "Is a 10,000-pound Hummer a truck?"

A typical compact Honda, by contrast, weighs about 2,400 pounds.

Lafayette said federal safety records show a retreat from years of improving highway safety and he blames large SUVs, partly because other drivers have a hard time seeing around the wider, taller vehicles. The assemblyman, who drives a Ford Taurus, is targeting nearly two dozen models that all weigh more than 6,000 pounds.

For example, the biggest SUV models offered by Ford, GMC, Cadillac and other manufacturers routinely travel meandering commuter parkways with easy, toll-free access to residential areas. If Lafayette's idea becomes law, these SUVS would have to join commercial trucks on interstate highways or other truck routes – some of them toll roads – with wider driving lanes, stronger road beds and long, straight stretches between exits.

The Hummer Club, the national owners' organization based in Belmont, Calif., also hasn't heard of such an effort and said Lafayette was just jumping on the SUV-bashing bandwagon.

"What legislator in his right mind would want to do that?" said Ron Bomhoff, vice president of The Hummer Club. "It's just like they attack popular celebrities for the same reason, because the press will report on it."

He said Hummers, the biggest of the big SUVs with an average weight of about 7,000 pounds, are as maneuverable as smaller passenger cars on streets and parkways and can fit in most 8-foot-wide parking spaces. At 7-feet wide, he said Hummers are a foot narrower than most buses.

In July, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that the fatality rate for SUVs and passenger cars of similar weight was essentially the same in non-rollover crashes. Death rates rose significantly for SUV occupants in rollovers. SUVs now account for about 25 percent of all the vehicles sold in the United States, according to analysts.