Ideas

It's a MADD World

MADD Canada compromises its integrity by endorsing an automobile company focused on building unsafe SUVS.

By Ted Mitchell
Published December 13, 2006

Andrew Murie, CEO
MADD CANADA
2010 Winston Park Drive
Suite 500
Oakville ON
L6H 5R7

Dear Andrew,

Several months ago, I saw a newspaper ad sponsored by MADD Canada and GM that specifically thanked General Motors for their partnership and support, which closed by endorsing GM vehicles.

This last point has resulted in my decision no longer to support MADD, after several years of doing so.

As a physician with an interest and considerable knowledge of road safety issues, I have to point out that there is no evidence that GM produces safer vehicles than any other company.

There are two perspectives to safety:

  1. Driver / occupant safety, which is the widely known viewpoint, and
  2. The safety implications for other road users (other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians) when compiled as a function of the vehicle involved in a crash. 1

In this latter category, GM does poorly. This is because the company relies heavily on high profit margin, large body-on-frame vehicles such as trucks and SUVs for their solvency.

Cheap body-on-frame technology is about 30 years obsolete with respect to current unibody car technology. A truck frame is essentially a stiff longitudinal steel battering ram aimed at the head and upper torso region of other road users.

Extensive theoretical testing of this concept has been done by NHTSA under the name of "LTV incompatibility" and much of their engineering work is available online. Crash data also exists in this method of compilation, but is not widely distributed or known, likely for cultural reasons related to the unpopular concept of personal responsibility.

A truck frame is essentially a stiff longitudinal steel battering ram aimed at the head and upper torso region of other road users.

In addition, it is well recognized that alcohol impaired drivers are significantly over-represented in SUVs and light trucks. 2

This is especially true in northern and rural areas of Canada. As the population becomes increasingly more urbanized and more rural roads are hard surfaced, the sales of vehicles in this segment continue to grow.

This illogical conclusion can only be explained by marketing-induced demand. At least 80 percent of these vehicles are "vanity vehicles", never used for utility purposes impossible to accomplish with a car.

A late 1990s estimate from NHTSA (no longer available on their website) was that LTV incompatibility accounted for between 4 and 5 percent of the total fatality rate. That is, if all drivers of trucks, SUVs and large vans traded in their vehicles for unibody cars and minivans, the fatality total would drop by that much.

Using U.S. numbers of 42,870 fatalities a year (2001-2005 average 3) this means that LTV incompatibility is responsible for 9,000 excess deaths (4 percent) since September 11, 2001 to the time of this letter.

Expressed in 9/11 "units", that equals 3.02 terrorist attacks and counting. This embarrassing fact is sadly ironic in the face of widespread public perception that such large vehicles are "safer".

An appropriately weighted analysis of fatality and injury consequences in occupants and other road users is likely to generate this result: GM vehicles will be identified as being less safe than average, for the simple reason of obsolete frame technology identified above. To be fair to GM, this is also likely true of the "big three".

On the plus side, MADD has done great work with respect to promoting its main goal, as well as commendable work on the growing problem of prescription and illicit drug impairment. It is refreshingly honest to see support for punishing vehicular manslaughter with sentences comparable to death as a result of any other weapon.

Borderline policies such as the push to lower the BAC limit to 0.05 have some advantages. There is a reason this Bill is not supported by the Canada Safety Council, as the epidemiologic evidence linking alcohol with crashes is at best marginal in the BAC range of 0.05 to 0.08.

What this legislation does, however, is to make the 0.08 level truly punishable, instead of the current situation where the police will not bother to prosecute unless the level is at least 0.10 because what of slimy lawyers do in court.

I wish your organization the best of success in reducing the carnage from impaired driving. However, MADD does not need to compromise its integrity with unfounded endorsements of big business.

Sincerely,

Ted Mitchell, MD
Hamilton ON

Note: This open letter will be published on Raise the Hammer, as will any reply received from MADD. It would be appreciated to have General Motors supply vehicle-specific fatality rates in the form of (1) showing the total of occupant and other road user fatalities by vehicle model. Only this data will serve to answer the assertions in this letter.

References

1. "Weight Matters", Safe Car Guide http://www.safecarguide.com/exp/weight/idx.htm

2. "The Alcohol-Crash Problem in Canada", Transport Canada, 2002 http://www.tc.gc.ca/roadsafety/tp/tp11759/2000/pdf/tp11759e_2000.pdf

3. "Traffic Safety Facts 2005", US Department of Transportation http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/TSFAnn/TSF2005EE.pdf

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.

19 Comments

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By Stew Low (anonymous) | Posted December 14, 2006 at 14:25:37

My name is Stew Low and I work for General Motors of Canada. We became involved with MADD a little over two years ago because we were asked to help. At the time we were in transition with our philanthropic focus and MADD to their credit asked at the right time, offered the right program for GM to support. And so we became a sponsor of the highschool outreach program. It took us about a milisecond to decide and about the same time to realize we were very privledged to partner with an organization that is making a real difference in attitudes towards driving and being impaired. I have personally attented the multi-media presentations as have my children. All of us got the message loud and clear.

Thank you to MADD for all the fine work you are doing and will do in the future. We are behind your work 100%.

My comment to Ted Mitchell and his ramblings, is all manufacturers use body on frame construction for trucks in applications where it is warranted. Even Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan and more. The technology is far from archaic as Mitchell suggests, actually it is rather sophisticated. The important point to note is the structure in behind the facia and the work done to make vehicles more "compatible' in a crash situation. We have done our homework and design the frame to collapse and absorb energy and be low enough during a crash as to be compatible with smaller vehicles thus protecting occupants.

There are actually three parts to the science of auto safety, those technologies that protect occupants before, during and after a crash. Before are things like anti lock brakes, stability control, driver behaviour and the like. During crashes air bags, crush zones, seat belts and body structure help protect occupants and after the crash technologies like OnStar that offer automatic airbag deployment notification and emergency response are there to assist.

An enormous amount of engineering go into everyvehicle design to make them as safe as possible.

Stew Low P. Eng.


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By volvo (anonymous) | Posted December 14, 2006 at 14:36:23

Buy a Volvo.

They are the most considerate in design and safety to not only the occupants but also pedestrians.

www.hamiltonvolvo.com

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted December 15, 2006 at 11:31:57

As far as preventing accidents goes, my surgeon colleagues have a rather crude saying: you can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit.

Avoiding a crash: Putting antilock brakes and stability control on a high center of gravity, non-independent rear suspension, high torsional frame deflection (unpredictable energy storage) vehicle is indeed trying to rewrite Newton's laws, or making chicken salad out of...

Trucks have a much higher single vehicle crash rate than cars, the last stat I saw was about 50% higher. How's that for crash avoidance?

Crash mitigation: Truck engineers have to do something to justify showing up for work; and indeed there have been gains over the decades in making truck frames less longitudinally stiff to reduce the damage inflicted on other vehicles. But, NHTSA's data will show that weight differentials alone do not explain the grossly asymmetric crash damage; geometry and longitudinal stiffness are still major factors. This is indefensible engineering practice - there is no necessity for either tall/square geometry or high longitudinal stiffness to meet the criteria trucks are built for.

With unibody design it is possible to have a very strong passenger compartment and sacrificial crumple zones front and back. Body on frame design cannot accomplish this goal as thoroughly without excessively weakening the entire structure.

For trucks, the sacrifical crumple zone is primarily the other car and it's occupants.

To see just how serious truck manufacturers are about safety, browse a new truck lot. These beasts are about 6 inches taller than what was considered normal a decade ago. (look at pdf photos page 7 and 8 here: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-50/...

Other than appearing tough and therefore selling better, the consequences of tall stance are overwhelmingly negative: harder to get in/out, easier to roll over, harder to load/unload cargo (which mostly doesn't matter to suburban cowboy buyers anyway, since the bed is typically always covered in shiny, metallic, oh-so-utilitarian fiberglass), more unstable on the road (Newton isn't going away anytime soon), and greater risk of overriding other car frames in crashes- especially the T-bone alignment. There isn't even a benefit in ground clearance, as the rear differential is the limiting dimension.

Height is a cosmetic feature with a mortality penalty. Pretty harsh.

Mr. Low is correct about other manufacturers, most Japanese companies offer body on frame design; they can't resist the high profit margin. Even Mercedes built their first iteration M series SUV on a truck frame. Competitor BMW's unibody X5 overwhelmed it in handing.

He didn't mention Honda. With the Ridgeway, a company with zero previous experience in trucks suddenly has the best handling truck on the market on their first try. It is unique in having unibody design.

These are not coincidences.

The engineering arguments and equations behind my statements will take more time to explain clearly, so look for my next article.

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By pwobschall (registered) | Posted December 15, 2006 at 14:28:24

Hi, I just sent this via postal service to GM. I will post the response when it arrives:

The response to this letter will be posted at www.raisethehammer.org/index.asp?id=465.

December, 15, 2006

Attn: Stew Low P. Eng.

Re: Mr. Low's response to "It's a MADD World" article posted here - www.raisethehammer.org/index.asp?id=465

Dear Mr. Low:

I am very disappointed with your lack of compassion as demonstrated by your use of insults, and your failure to address several valid issues in your recent response to a letter submitted to you by MADD, on behalf of Ted Mitchell.

For someone who is aware that their response was to be publicized, and for a man with so little grace and apparent lack of experience in public relations, I think it was a poor decision to have you respond on behalf of GM Canada. This reflects poorly on you personally and on behalf of the corporation as a whole.

In your response to the author of the letter, Ted Mitchell, you begin by stating "My comment to Ted Mitchell and his ramblings".

I found this comment inappropriate and insulting. It speaks volumes to your attitude towards the general public when they have legitimate concerns that deserve legitimate responses.

I think that Ted Mitchell, a physician, had several legitimate points complete with referenced sources. This is more than I can say for your response, which didn't address specific issues and certainly did not provide any reference material or factual evidence. This either speaks to your ignorance of the issues, your lack of respect to this individual (or all individuals), to the fact that you didn't actually read the letter's contents before responding, or to a combination of some or all of these possibilities.

I also feel that it was indeed your writings that more accurately reflect the definition of rambling: "digressive: (of e.g. speech and writing) tending to depart from the main point."

I would hope that if you were, for some strange reason, chosen to respond to pubic inquiries in the future, that you would take this task more seriously and spend more time researching and crafting your response.

Sincerely, Pete W.

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By pubic (anonymous) | Posted December 15, 2006 at 15:13:49

Hee hee hee, he said ''pubic inquiries''!

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By A reader (anonymous) | Posted December 16, 2006 at 14:17:35

I'm gonna swim upstream on this one and suggest alternative ways of thinking about the MADD/RIDE pogrom and vehicle "safety.

First, MADD/RIDE. While we all can agree impaired driving is essentially an anti-social behaviour, the typically quoted justification that 30% of all fatalitied involve alcohol makes one wonder why little is done to eradicate the the cause(s) of the remaining 70%. Before we all hear the "those are true accidents" excuse, anyone who drives in Canada today knows the overwhelming majority of auto "accidents" aren't. They are most often the result of incompetence and poor judgement. While graduated licensing is supposed to fix all this, I somehow doubt that will be the panacea the politicos and bureaucrats promised.

So in our zeal to eradicate impaired driving, we are rushing down the road of unfettered police-state actions- summarily detaining all driving on a certain piece of road without any cause being instigated by any particular driver. The additional surveilance that takes place at RIDE stops for other violations beyond possible DUI infractions is absolutely unacceptable, but why else would there be additional officers scanning the vehicle and it's interior while the primary officer talks to the driver?

It was difficult enough to secure personal freedoms in the first place, now we just hand them back without a second thought. It is easy to make a case that RIDE programs are as much about getting the Canadian public to accept what amounts to illegal detainment and search as it is about catching impaired drivers.

And as for truck safety- Have you ever heard of the joke regarding the Volvo Syndrome? It's based on the phrase "I think I'm safe therefore I am". It seems may people who drive vehicles they believe are "safe" will attempt things they would not in an "inferior" vehicle. So as manufacturere add "safety" features to vehicles, the drivers just drive that much more "recklessly".

The best case in point was a curved section multi-lane highway in Britain where a lot of drivers just slid off the road from excess speed in wet conditions. The highway authority applied a compound which increased the grippiness of the pavement. At first, it worked. less "accidents", but as the drivers realized there was more grip, the accident rate went back up, except that drivers were now exiting the road at higher speeds.

You want safer roads? Stop building vehicles that make the driver feel safer than they really are.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted December 16, 2006 at 21:24:18

"A reader" has some very good points.

Despite the fact that 30% of fatalities are alcohol related, MADD actually has done well. In about 2/3rds of those fatals, the driver's BAC was over 0.15, that is almost twice the legal limit. That is slobbering, falling down drunk. Not the least bit capable of normal human civility, listening to friends or remembering something MADD put on the radio. If you want to do something effective about this group you need to be draconian and enlist friends, family, doctors and bartenders to start taking keys away for long periods of time.

I couldn't agree more that we are in a serious state of denial about the other 70%. But organizations like MADD could draw attention to this number a bit more often.

Distraction and inattention account for most of the 70%. Driving is easy; exceptional skill counts for almost nothing (the safety benefit is easily erased by slightly increased risk taking), but the task requires all of your attention all of the time. And driving as if those cyclists and pedestrians were your kids.

As for the psychological phenom of taking increasing risks since the vehicle and/or road is safer, this is probably a battle we will never win.

I've heard it suggested that instead of an airbag they should just put a big spike in the middle of the steering wheel.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 17, 2006 at 20:23:13

"It was difficult enough to secure personal freedoms in the first place, now we just hand them back without a second thought."

In fairness, driving has always been a privilege, not a right. That means drivers are subject to a level of scrutiny beyond what would be reasonable for a private citizen just minding his or her own business.

"And as for truck safety- Have you ever heard of the joke regarding the Volvo Syndrome?"

This is sometimes referred to as "risk homeostasis", a wonderful term that means people tend to behave in a manner consistent with a fairly steady rate of risk. If something becomes safer, people behave more riskily to compensate.

This is also the reasoning behind the "naked streets" movement - streets stripped of all safety engineering (sidewalks, lane markings, signage, lights, etc.) so that everyone slows down, behaves more carefully, and actually pays attention to their surroundings rather than the plethora of regulations.

The brainchild of a Dutch traffic engineer named Hans Mondermann, the "naked streets" or "ambiguous shared space" concept is based on the idea that if people feel unsettled enough, they will slow down and drive carefully.


According to city engineer Koop Kerkstra, accident rates have fallen about 20 Percent since the conversion, and travel time for crossing the city has improved dramatically. (Garrick, 2005)

"Who has the right of way?”, asks Hans Monderman. "I don't care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains." (Mondermann, H. as quoted in Lyall, 2005).

http://necsi.org/community/wiki/index.ph...

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By Volvo driver (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2006 at 14:41:35

I drive a Volvo, (replaced my Civic) to keep my family safe. I can assure you that I do not take more risks because I feel 'safer' on the road. The reason why I changed cars to a Volvo was because I do not want to be in a Civic with my children when a Hummer/Suburban/Excursion/Expedition runs a red light.

The way SUV drivers show no regard for other human life is very obvious in their driving behaviours. They simply do not care if they kill someone while trying to shave 2 minutes off their destination times. I don't think they would even loose a minutes sleep as a result of a fatal 'accident'. There are no accidents, just self-centered carelessness.

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By $12 million in "sales" (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2006 at 14:46:15

A regular company that sells a product or service and has sales of $12 million would be doing well if their profit was $2 million.

A charity that has $12 million in fundraising income (sales) basically has a $10 million profit to pay its employees. $2 million would be used to 'promote the cause'. A reversal of a real company.

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By Just wondering - (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2006 at 23:24:13

Re: Madd's mandate to raise funds.
I know it does some awareness programs for teens, & some intersting T.V. ads, but is there anybody out there In Favour of drunk driving?
I would doubt that.

So, Madd's fundraising ought not to be on the scale of the Cdn. Cancer Society, Food Banks, or other broader based groups. Does it link with Al. Anon, Al. Teen, or the John Howard/Elizabeth Frye Societies? If not why not?

If the majority of drunk drivers that are involved in fatalities & injuries are at the point of falling down, slobbering dead drunk, they probably spend a lot of their lives getting & remaining that way. They are alcoholics, & logic doesn't come into it, especially after 10 drinks.

The Madd commercials have given us permission to intervene & take somebody's car keys away, but it isn't addressing the root of the problem which is alcoholism. What happens when nobody is there to take the keys?

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By Alan (anonymous) | Posted December 19, 2006 at 09:31:46

Al-Anon and Alateen don't do cross-promotions, endorsements, or advocacy. They don't link with other gruops. They're strictly support groups for alcoholics / family members based on the 12 step process of recovery.

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By A reader (anonymous) | Posted December 23, 2006 at 13:24:03

To Ryan,

While holding a driver's license may be an artificial "privilege" granted by the state, ostensibly a certificate of competence and definitely a form of taxation, suggesting that driving lawfully down a public road is any less a right than walking down a sidewalk beside the same road is a real stretch. We would be outraged if police set up checkpoints on sidewalks to inspect all passers-by for illegal weapons, substances or outstanding warrants. How about checkpoints exiting shopping malls to inspect all our Christmas shopping bags for potential shoplifting infractions?

And as for curtailment of individual rights for the common driving good, shall we also submit to mass summary road-side detainments to search for unlicensed, uninsured drivers or unsafe vehicles? (As if this is not already part of the RIDE system) Or how about roadside driving ability tests to weed out the small percentage of drivers who manage to cause 70% of all fatal collisions due to inattention or incompetence?

At what point on the slippery slope are our rights unjustifiably infringed?

I'll answer that. When our collective rights are summarily interferred with on a mass scale to POSSIBLY catch a minority involved in illegal activities. When Canadians blindly accept that merely driving down the road during a certain time of the year is sufficient reason for mass detainment and search, there is something very wrong with our idea of civil and personal rights.


Volvo driver- While you personally may drive no differently, or possibly more cautiously, since your shift to Volvo, there is a reasonable foundation for the general logic behind stereotypes. (can't remember where I read the reference, could have been Tipping Point, Blink or Freakonomics) But when combined with Ryan's reference to "risk homeostasis", the premise holds water.

Since I also ride a comparatively small, quiet 500cc motorcycle, I am acutely aware of the dangers posed by other drivers, and have likewise learned to "sense" which situations, locations and types of vehicle to avoid or observe closely while riding. Think 25+ years of vehicular survival training. Surprisingly, drivers wearing hats figure prominently as requiring extreme attention, either old drivers doddering or young with rear-mounted baseball caps aggressive-driving. SUV's and construction-company sized pickup trucks figure next for the reasons you observe.

But in the "normal sedan" category, Volvo drivers have earned top place of makes I avoid. Whether buy incompetence, timidity, inattention or some sense of superior entitlement, Volvo drivers seem to more often do things that endanger me or others in otherwise normal driving situations. Sorry your choice of vehicle make groups you with the rest of the Volvo lumpen, but in my long experience, the group has earned it's stripes.

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By A joke: (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2006 at 01:43:24

Question: " On a 4 lane highway, which of the lanes does the Volvo drive take?"

Answer: "All of them."

Simplistic, & a generalization, but too frequently true.

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By justwondering? (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2006 at 01:50:52

You seem to see an Awful lot as 'potential spam'.
A bit paranoid perhaps, esp. as this relates directly to the post above. I drove 'bike' for many years & had the same aversion to Volvo drivers as the above poster. (they seemed blissfully unaware of anything smaller than a Mac truck passing them, or anywhere near them.)

('Just getting a tad annoyed with your spamaphobia. I notice the nonesequiter obscene spam doesn't get labelled as 'spam' or even get deleted.)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 28, 2006 at 12:55:47

Dear justwondering?,

In my efforts to reduce the amount of comment spam on this site (about half the total, which we delete on a daily basis) without blocking authentic comments, we're trying out methods to identify comments that look like spam.

When a given algorithm either misses spam or falsely identifies a real comment as spam, it's not paranoia, but merely evidence that more work is required to get it right.

We appreciate your patience as we struggle to deal with what is fast becoming the biggest technical hurdle of the Internet: zombie PCs spewing out spam emails and crawling blogs looking for comment forms to fill.

I hope the situation on RTH will improve, at least temporarily, in the next few weeks.

Sincerely, Ryan McGreal, Editor, Raise the Hammer

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted December 29, 2006 at 10:16:03

My wife and I have long observed the "V factor" which is the observation that vehicles starting with the letter V tend to have bad drivers at the wheel. I think this is truer for Volkswagen than Volvo however. VW's are so unreasonably hyped by marketers that the average person actually believes they have an advantage in performance (without attemting to verify this) and drive accordingly. No such silliness existed in Germany the last time I was there.

Older Volvo's were built to be safer than the average car. This is no longer true for the last decade or so, as others have caught up. e.g. browse here: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/ncap/Index2.cfm

As for comments from "a reader" four posts above, if a pedestrian weighed 2 tonnes and walked erratically at 70 km/hr on a Hamilton street, he would be posing a serious risk to others on the road and should be stopped accordingly. Discussing "rights infringement" without consideration of risk to others is irrelevant.

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By justwondering (anonymous) | Posted December 31, 2006 at 01:29:33

I think a lot of the former bravado (?) of the former 5 star safety rated Volvos, is now being exhibited by the bigger SUV's, Hummers etc. In spite of what the APA & others say about the limitations of SUV's on ice,& snow the drivers still feel invulnerable, & take some rediculous chances.

I now look at vehicle purchases like the Arms Race. My Ins. Co. charges me more because I drive a small car & am more likely to be killed in a collision with an SUV. The same company charges the SUV driver more, cuz they are more likely to kill somebody in a smaller vehicle. Once again the Ins. Co's make out like bandits.

The bigger, heavier the gas guzzler, the safer your family is, (in theory) so you could purchase with the idea that "If anybody is going to die in a collision, it will be that other family, not mine."
That of course begets bigger & bigger vehicles/guided missles.

(I'm still trying to figure out why the province thinks that something the size of a small bus is a 'car'?? in terms of license fees.)

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted January 01, 2007 at 15:02:44

I am not sure if this is still current. Should contact Ontario ministry of finance to verify:

http://www.trd.fin.gov.on.ca/userfiles/p...

What it says is the new vehicle fuel consumption tax depends on what class of vehicle you buy.

E.g. BMW 650 convertible, 28 hwy mpg, fuel tax will be $1200 BMW X5 SUV, 28 hwy mpg, fuel tax = $400. (data from here: http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/transportation/to...

eh? Who's subsidizing who?

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