SUVs: "Be Careful, You May Run Out of Planet"

I've been noticing TV commercials for SUVs lately, and I have to tell you, they know how to reach their target market. These ads don't use a lot of difficult terminology, just little, easily-understood-by-boneheads words like "big," "more" and "powerful." In fact, in one ad -- you probably know it -- the only spoken words are, "It's bigger. It's more powerful." And, presumably, the average American consumer sits watching with a half-gallon drive-thru cup of Mountain Dew in one hairy hand and a remote control in the other saying, "Big good! Me need big!"

See, sport utility or "sport-ute" owners (let's call them "idiutes") don't understand bigger terms like "conspicuous consumption" or pertinent statistics like these: SUVs waste 33 percent more gasoline than passenger cars and spew 43 percent more global-warming pollution and 47 percent more overall pollution than your average car.

My God, when did we start having "ozone action alert days"? We Americans simply cannot recognize when we have enough.

But hey, you need an SUV, right? That's what so many people tell me. So let's look at the most common reasons "idiutes" give for owning oversized, dangerous, polluting vehicles:

* They're safer; I need to protect my kids.

Then don't buy a sport-ute. They are four times as likely to roll over in a crash than cars and three times more likely to kill the occupants in a rollover. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, SUVs roll over in 37 percent of fatal crashes. Here's what the New York Times said about SUV safety on July 15, 1999: "Because it is taller, heavier and more rigid, an SUV or a pickup is more than twice as likely as a car to kill the driver of the other vehicle in a collision. Yet partly because these so-called light trucks roll over so often, their occupants have roughly the same chance as car occupants of dying in a crash."

With their height and comparatively narrow tire-track width, SUVs handle and maneuver much less effectively than cars. Emergency swerves to avoid a crash can themselves lead to rollover accidents. Rollovers account for 62 percent of SUV deaths but only 22 percent in cars. As for the safety of your kids, all that extra pollution you blow out contributes disproportionately to low-lying ozone (not the good, upper-atmosphere kind), which damages lung tissue (actually burns through it) and promotes respiratory infections and disease. Children are among the most susceptible to these dangers.

* I want to buy American!

Then boot that "ute"! Since 1990, the inefficiency of SUVs has led, not only to increased emissions of 717 million metric tons of carbon monoxide, but also to Americans wasting an extra 70 billion gallons of gasoline. Gas consumption has increased by almost a million barrels a day, greatly increasing America's dependence on foreign oil. Today, due largely to America's love affair with the SUV, we're more dependent on foreign oil than we were at the height of the 1973 energy crisis. Because of that dependency, we buy 613,000 barrels every day from our good friends Iraq, who, with oil money in hand, may have helped fund the attacks on New York and Washington. That makes you a potential "evil-doer." So you can take that cheesy clip-on American flag off your SUV window. How about adding a bumper sticker that says "United We Waste"?

If everyone stopped driving SUVs tomorrow, we'd save millions of barrels of oil each day -- enough to tell Iraq to go to hell forever. Why don't we try that, Dubya, before we go drilling for oil in our protected wildlife preserves?

* I need four-wheel drive.

Look, I'm willing to admit some people -- very few people -- might have an actual need for an obscenely large, wasteful, environment-murdering, terrorist-funding vehicle. Maybe you live in the Australian outback and you need one to drive through raging croc-infested rivers; however, according to Chrysler polls, 97 percent of Jeep Grand Cherokee owners never leave paved roads. They're mostly used by solo commuters and soccer moms who live in urban-sprawler housing developments -- complete with massive garages to shield those sport-utes from the great outdoors. And how come every winter I see dozens of SUVs flipped over on the side of the highway? Where's your four-wheel drive now, idiute?

* They're rugged.

Wrong again. See, because of a huge loophole in federal regulations, sport-utes are exempt from all kinds of things -- including some safety standards. In a June 1999 study, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that some SUV bumpers suffer expensive damage ($5,000 to $6,000 worth) at impacts of only 5 miles per hour. Let me say that again: only 5 miles per hour. Wow. That's rugged.

So let's recap: SUVs, in addition to being just generally annoying, represent a danger to both humans and our environment. They're more expensive to purchase, insure, operate and maintain. Oh, and trendy vehicles like SUVs are more likely to be stolen, too. But what does all that matter? They're "bigger" and "more powerful."

Just as an aside, U.S. per-capita spending on anti-hunger and anti-poverty efforts overseas have dropped to just $24 per year. Whereas French citizens spend $144 per year and Norwegians spend $240 per year. We can afford to waste $20,000 to $40,000 on an SUV (enough for Habitat for Humanity to build about 28 to 52 homes in a developing country), but we can't afford to give more than $24 a year to help those who have greater needs than four-wheel drive.

Do you even realize there's only 50 years worth of fossil fuel left on the Earth?

My favorite SUV ad of all is the one that shows a machismo-laden Infiniti ute standing among tall trees and mountainous land (a protected wildlife preserve maybe) The ad says, with no irony whatsoever:

"Be careful, you may run out of planet."

Craig Williams is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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