SUVs and utes are no longer just work vehicles, but tax-subsidised behemoths

by Jack Thrower

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It is clear the massive increase in SUVs and utes is not due to more tradies or those using them on weekends, but because out tax system encourages the purchase of these behemoths to the detriment of our roads, our safety and the climate.

Australia has a big ‘big car’ problem, we have too many SUVs and utes and we keep getting more of them. In 2023 all ten best-selling new car models were either SUVs or utes, over half of all new car sales were SUVs (55.8%) and nearly a quarter (22.5%) were light commercial vehicles (a category mostly representing utes).

A common argument is that these ever-larger vehicles are needed by tradies for work and by families to pull caravans and boats. Any attempts to curtail the growth of these massive vehicles are greeted with spurious cries about destroying the weekend.

But such claims don’t hold up.

On conservative estimates, we currently have around five times as many SUVs as boat trailers or caravans. Further, even if we count every technical or trades worker (including occupations like bakers, rarely known for their utes), there are at least 1.5 times as many utes as ‘tradies’.

Big cars cause a range of social ills, mostly stemming from simple physics.

Big cars generate more pollution, usually burning more fuel which emits particulates that worsen rates of respiratory illness and of course, carbon-dioxide which contributes to climate change. The turn towards EVs among these vehicles is limited, barely any existing stock is electric and only 7.2% of all vehicle sales in 2023 were electric. Electric vehicles are also not a panacea, manufacturing big cars tends to emit more carbon simply because there are more materials to process and move. The latest greenhouse gas emissions figures show that in the year to September 2023, transport emissions were 20% higher than they were in 2005.

Big cars are also detrimental to road safety. Research from the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows vehicles with higher hood heights and blunter hood shapes such as SUVs have a greater chance of causing fatalities in collisions with pedestrians and cars with lower hood heights.

Similarly, these large cars cause more damage to our roads. Heavier vehicles cause exponentially more damage to roads, meaning that cars with twice the weight cause 16 times the damage.

One of the most visible issues caused by these big cars is that because they take up much more space, they are difficult to navigate on narrow streets and Standards Australia has called for larger parking sizes to accommodate big cars. What might seem like minor changes, such as widening roads and car parks, have major implications: it means choosing between fewer car park spots and more sprawling or expensive car parks. It would also mean widening our suburban roads at great expense and to the detriment of urban greenery.

Unfortunately, government policies encourage us to buy big cars: our tax system regularly subsidises buying them from the Morrison government’s “Temporary Full Expensing” to the “Loss Carry Back” tax offset that operated from 2019–20 to 2022–23, our loading zones provide priority parking to any ute, and we have no policies that price or regulate the damage these vehicles cause such as carbon taxes or weight-related registration fees.

*This has been edited on 13 January 2024 to add in the the dates of the loss carry back scheme to avoid the implication that the scheme was still in operation.

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