Four-Wheeling Is Popular Protect Yourself and Nature

(NUI) - Twenty years ago, the buyers of four-wheel drive vehicles were primarily ranchers, miners, skiers and residents of the "snow belt." The term "sport utility vehicle" was barely known.

How things have changed. By 1994, more than 1.2 million sport utility vehicles were sold in the United States, many to people with no plans to ever venture beyond the pavement to take them off-road.

Men cite "freedom" and women cite "safety" as the primary reasons for purchasing a sport utility, according to Friendly Exchange, a consumer magazine published by Farmers Insurance.

With no end in sight for the consumer interest in sport utility vehicles, Farmers Insurance offers these tips for preserving your equipment, conserving the environment and keeping insurance rates down.

Protect Yourself

Because four-wheel drives are more complex than their two-wheel drive counterparts, repairs can be more expensive. While sport utility vehicles are inherently stronger than cars and minivans, drivers should follow some simple guidelines when traveling off-road:

* Cross ravines or obstacles slowly, at an angle, one wheel at a time. This increases the ground clearance of the vehicle and reduces the chance of damage to the undercarriage.

* Locate the lowest points on your vehicle and drive to avoid striking these points on rocks or obstacles.

* Park the vehicle and walk ahead to check the terrain if you're uncertain about it. Develop a plan for slowly climbing or descending steep or rough sections of trail.

Protect the Environment

Tread Lightly!, a Utah-based affiliate of the U.S. Forest Service, offers these tips for preserving the environment while four-wheeling:

* Stay on roads and trails. Don't make your own shortcuts.

* Cross streams slowly, at fording points only, at a slight angle to protect the streambed.

* Respect fenced areas, pasture lands and meadows, farm fields and reforested areas. If there's a closed gate or a "No Trespassing" sign, respect it.

Protect Your Pocketbook

Insurance rates typically don't rise with the purchase of a sport utility vehicle, although the Highway Loss Data Institute says such vehicles have some of the worst theft-loss records.

Mike Sullivan of Farmers Insurance's Underwriting Department offers some tips to keep costs down:

* Different vehicles can mean different premiums. Check before buying, rather than taking what may appear at first glance to be the best deal.

* Take care when selecting options. Adding a lift kit or oversized tires and wheels can be a problem. Changes to the factory suspension or steering geometry can make finding coverage more difficult.

Sullivan adds a note of caution: "A sport utility vehicle can get you places where the family sedan can't, but any vehicle is only as safe as the person behind the wheel."

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