Ever-wider: why large SUVs don’t fit, and what to do about it

January 22, 2024

The case for European law-makers to review the maximum width of light duty vehicles.

Spurred on by rising sales of large SUVs, newly-sold passenger vehicles (i.e. cars) are getting one centimetre wider every 2 years (see figure 1 below). All the indications are that this trend will continue without regulatory action by European law-makers. The current EU maximum width applied to all vehicles, 255 cm, was enacted to limit the expansion of buses and trucks in the mid 1990s – and was never truly intended for cars. The limit fails to contain the trend to ever-wider SUVs (including pick-up trucks), and there is a compelling case to review it.

The average width of new cars in the EU now exceeds 180 cm, and around half of sales now exceed this figure. 180 cm is a key threshold because it is a frequently-used minimum specification for the width of on-street parking in Europe. When parked in spaces 180 cm wide, vehicles exceeding this width simply don’t fit. Vehicles which exceed their parking bay take space from those using the footpath, from vehicles moving along the road, or from both the footpath and the road. Troublingly, the ever-wider trend is continuing apace with large SUVs and pick-ups that approach or exceed 200 cm. The BMW X5 (200.4 cm), BMW X6 (200.4 cm), BMW X7 (200 cm), Mercedes Benz GLS (195.6 cm), Audi Q8 (199.5 cm), Porsche Cayenne (198.3 cm), Land Rover Defender (199.6 cm), Land Rover Range Rover Sport (199 cm), and VW Touareg (198.4 cm) are being joined by the Mercedes Benz EQS (195.9 cm), Volvo EX90 (196.4 cm), Kia EV9 (198 cm), and BMW XM (200.5 cm). The Dodge RAM, a top-selling American pick-up truck imported into Europe, measures up to 208.5 cm in width, overshooting 180 cm-wide parking spaces by almost 30 cm.

Reviewing the maximum width limit of light duty vehicles (cars, crossovers, SUVs, pick-ups and vans) is vital to protect public space from further encroachment, including footpaths, roadway and adjoining parking. Such a review must also consider the road safety risks posed by ever-wider SUVs, particularly since increased width enables the height of the vehicle to be further raised. Vehicle fronts raised by 10 cm carry a 30% higher risk of fatalities in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists. 

Primarily this briefing makes the case for a review of light duty vehicle width by the European Commission, and calls for such a review as a matter of priority. To illustrate the background issues more deeply, we explore one scenario where new vehicles with a width in excess of the widest 3% of new sales today could no longer be newly-registered after a phase-in period. The 3% figure is an assumption used for illustrative purposes.

The widest 3% of new passenger car registrations in the first half of 2023 exceed 192.1 cm, and the scenario then assesses this figure as a potential revised maximum width, including its likely implications for electric vehicles.Because large vans, mini-buses and campervans (larger-volume vehicles) involve different use cases, the scenario explores a wider maximum of 207 cm for this cohort, with access to this higher limit governed by internal space thresholds. Potential application dates are also discussed. Overall, the scenario indicates that prompt action would deliver a crucial safeguard to arrest the ever-wider trend from becoming further embedded in future sales while having only modest market impact

Crucially, decision-makers are urged to support the inclusion of a review clause to examine the maximum width of light duty vehicles in revising the Weights & Dimensions directive, being discussed in the European Parliament and Council in early 2024. Importantly: to support the inclusion of a review clause is not to specify new limits. Rather, it is to agree that the ever-wider trend warrants examination, and to entrust this examination to the European Commission within a defined timeframe.

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