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What does a pickup cost?
No, I'm not talking about what it costs you, not the sticker price down at the Ford, GM or Toyota lot. What if you counted the cost of congestion and greenhouse gas emissions and the price paid to repair body and limb after a crash?
Well, a professor at the University of Texas has counted these "external" costs of owning a vehicle and she's found that a pickup imposes a higher price on society than the more citified sedan. In fact, finds Kara M. Kockelman, an engineering professor in Austin, Texas, "the worst offenders (in terms of highest external costs) were found to be pickups."
Yes, the humble pickup truck is an offender — and the 17 most vile culprits on Kockelman's list of best selling passenger vehicles. The worst of the worst are the Dodge Ram 3500, the Ford F 350, the Dodge Ram 2500, the Ford F 250, the Chevrolet Silverado 3500 and the Silverado 2500.
Okay, what the heck is this professor talking about and why is she picking on trucks?
Kockelman contends there are costs to running a vehicle that aren't counted in the sticker price or the price of a fill up or oil change. Some vehicles take up more room than others. Some cause more traffic congestion. Some vehicles cause more damage to life and limb when they are involved in crashes. And they all put out different levels of pollution and greenhouse gases.
Kockelman calls these "external" costs because they aren't borne by the vehicle's owner. Pollution is pumped into the air; we all share the cost of congestion; our health care system absorbs the price of auto accidents.
There are "costs" to owning a vehicle that individuals don't pay but are spread around society in general. Kockelman's point is that those costs differ depending on the kind of vehicle — and the costs are highest for the sturdy pickup.
The Texas professor counted these "external" costs for all the best selling vehicles, more than 100 cars, SUVs and pickups. She included global warming costs, the health cost of pollution, a crash cost, a traffic congestion cost and a cost for how much land it took to park the things. Then she ranked all the vehicles on their "external costs" per mile.
Front porch and truck in Georgia.
Photo: TW Collins
And on that list 17 pickups ranked as having the highest costs of all the best selling vehicles. Number 18 was a Hummer H2.
For example, the Honda Insight (a hybrid) produced the least global warming gases per mile, according to Kockelman. The F 350, which gets 10.7 miles per gallon, produced the most greenhouse gases.
The results were pretty much the same for Kockelman's pollution calculations. The Honda Civic Hybrid produced the least pollution per mile. The Ford pickups had the most, although pollution standards are bringing the pickups in line with other vehicles.
By far, however, the greatest "external" cost of pickups came with injuries caused in crashes. Pickups are heavier and they have higher chassis, features that "can cause more damage to others, including loss of life." That is, people in wrecks involving pickups have more severe injuries than those in accidents involving only passenger cars.
People "in vehicles involved in a crash where the crash partner is a pickup are over twice as likely to suffer fatal injury relative to those where the crash partner is a passenger car," Kockelman writes. Of the 25 vehicles with the highest external costs due to injuries, 20 are pickups. The four worst on the list are the two Fords, the Silverado 3500 and the Ram 3500.
The point of all this calculating is to show that different vehicles impose different costs on society. And, Kockelman notes, those costs to the "larger community" aren't paid for by the owner of the vehicle. If they were, the price of the top performing car would be dramatically different from the cost of the most lethal pickup.
For example, she writes, if there were premiums charged for these social costs of vehicles, the fee charged for a Honda Insight hybrid would run $15,000 (based on a ten year life of the car). But for a Dodge Ram 3500, the external social cost fee would amount to $38,000 over ten years.
Kockelman suggests if these fees were collected, the revenue could be used to design lower cost substitutes, such as bicycles, safer vehicles and hybrids. (Good luck pulling a trailer with a load of round bales with a Honda hybrid.)
In the meantime, higher gas prices and a weak housing market are reducing pickup sales. Sales of pickups have dropped ten percent recently.