Insurers' brake on utility cars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 October, 1997, 12:00am

From the commercial birth of the automobile in the 1920s, Americans have always subscribed to the thesis that you are what you drive. And that, in most cases, has meant driving big. The heyday of the huge gas-guzzling 'house on wheels' came in the 60s and 70s, when parking spaces were plentiful and petrol was as cheap as Pepsi.

A downsizing occurred in the 80s, when Americans began favouring compactness and reliability over size, and flocked to Japanese imports. That did not last long, because the last five years have seen the re-emergence of grandeur in a different form.

Almost unheard of 10 years ago, the 'sport utility vehicles' - jeep-style four-wheel drives stylised for suburban tastes - have become pre-eminent in the US market. Sales of original suppliers such as Jeep and Suzuki took off in the early 90s, so much so that every domestic and Japanese car-maker rushed their own versions into production. Utility vehicles are now the favoured car of yuppies, teenagers and nuclear families, and account for one in five of every car sold. Gas-guzzling is back in style.

Wanting to go one bigger, Hollywood celebrities - pioneered by Arnold Schwarzenegger - have started rolling round Los Angeles in tank-like objects called Hummers, hugely expensive former military vehicles modified for civilian use. But one thing Americans don't like big is bills. Which is why a new report has sent insurers up the wall and drivers running for cover.

Crash statistics have shown that because utility vehicles are much heftier than the average car, they are accounting for the vast majority of damage costs during accidents, and sending liability claims skyrocketing.

Insurers, not the most indulgent of service providers, have decided it is time owners of such vehicles paid the price for their superior might, and are planning to raise premiums by as much as several hundred dollars a year.

Owners of common-or-garden, two-wheel-drive cars will, however, receive some compensation for the fact that any collision with a big jeep often consigns us to the morgue. Premiums on regular cars are set to drop.

Car insurance, which has already been rocketing country-wide on the back of increasing car theft, is a touchy subject in the US. Proof can be found in the case of New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, who was popular with voters until she failed to deal with legal anomalies which landed the state with the highest car premiums in the nation. Now she is battling to win re-election next month.

It looks like the pressures of the marketplace may send the four-wheel-drive craze into a permanent reverse.

The American post-office worker is the perpetual butt of jokes from stand-up comedians and television hosts, and has a reputation that can only be described as unfortunate.

While the American version of the postman shares the global reputation of forever being in fear of over-protective dogs, his colleagues back in the sorting offices are known for something much more sinister: simply, being prone to gun-toting, psychopathic tendencies. Such is the reputation among postal workers for random acts of violence that the phrase 'going postal' has crept into widespread use in reference to anyone who loses his head.

While the vast majority of the 750,000 postal employees never commit any act more aggressive than licking a stamp, there is no denying recent history is littered with horrific tales of bad vibes and blood within the mail room.

The best-known incident happened in 1986, when an Oklahoma worker blasted 15 of his colleagues to death. More recently, a disgruntled ex-employee returned to his workplace and murdered two colleagues, while a Miami postal clerk shot his ex-wife as she stood in line at the post office, then killed himself.

However, it seems to have taken the leisure industry's take on the situation to stir the organisation's wrath. A violent new computer game called Go Postal! has been decried by postal-service managers and unions - and seen its sales rocket as a result.

The game starts with the hero - the 'postal dude' - standing with a gun. The player attempts to kill all policemen trying to stop him, and the dude moves to murder all-comers - from churchgoers to military men - using guns and flame-throwers, until his path is littered with hundreds of charred and bloodied bodies.

The last time we checked, there was no trade union for mothers in the US. But for an Illinois woman, industrial action was the only answer to unhappiness in the workplace.

Michelle Tribout got so fed up with being ignored or treated with disrespect by her three children that she recently went on strike.

The 36-year-old woman withdrew her labour and made sure her family could not get near her to attempt arbitration - she climbed into her children's treehouse and stayed there.

'I wait on them hand and foot. I love them. I'd do anything in the world for them. But they're going to treat me nice,' she told the media which gathered at the base of the tree when word got round of the maternal unrest.

Mrs Tribout remained in the treehouse overnight, refusing to negotiate while her husband ordered the three children to do chores around the house to show how much they really cared. In a particularly American happy ending, she only came down when they left cookies by the tree for her.



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Insurers' brake on utility cars

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