Christopher Macgowan: Politics of envy fuel 4x4 hatred

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Indy Lifestyle Online

This is not a joke. What is the difference between a PR agency, an anti-car pressure group and the highly respected British Medical Journal?

The answer seems to be nothing. Last week an astonishing piece of anti-driver research was published by the BMJ. Conducted by researchers at Imperial College, London, its conclusions were reported as fact on television, radio and in the papers. Drivers of 4x4s were a menace to themselves and other road users, it said.

We are pretty thick skinned when it comes to anti-4x4 attacks; we know there are those who don't like these cars; many more love their versatility and there are those for whom they are essential.

We are used to reading nonsense peddled by PR agencies - usually working on behalf of insurance companies. Accident claim data or customer surveys are happy hunting grounds in the world of spin. The figures can be manipulated easily and there's always a 5 Live slot to fill.

But when bad research is conducted by a respected educational institution and published in the BMJ, it becomes less easy to swallow.

If it is flawed, we should ask questions because the BMJ should reflect the highest standards. The media have a responsibility too, because an organisation that loses sight of scientific fact behind a web of assumption demands closer scrutiny.

Last year the BMJ carried an article calling for health warnings to be posted on 4x4s. It followed the well-trodden path of anti-4x4 campaigners, collating out-of-date American crash tests, based on vehicles designed on truck platforms that are not even sold in the UK.

Last week's research was no better. Three locations in central London were chosen as a starting point for a driver behaviour study.

Students were positioned on three street corners, observing bad driving habits for an hour, three times a day. Now I hope these people will have been familiar with the eclectic mix of 4x4s, from the smallest Suzuki to the largest Range Rover. But somehow I doubt it.

The results claimed to show that 4x4 drivers wear their seat belts less and use their mobiles more while driving. Finally, in a giant leap of logic, researchers suggested 4x4 drivers must be over-compensating for driving safer cars. Guaranteed column inches.

I have no doubt that Imperial College is home to some serious researchers, doing very important medical work. But this would not seem to be the case here.

The approach to the research mirrors that used by many in the anti-car lobby, most notably the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s. In fact it seems so familiar that one starts to wonder whether the pressure group has someone working on the inside.

One thing has come from this. No longer are 4x4 haters hiding behind a cloak of poor design. The car is not the problem; it's you the driver. Not so much an issue of greener motoring as some pressure groups have claimed, more a question of green-eyed motoring.

The author is chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders

motoring@independent.co.uk

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