Published on Sunday, March 17, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
SUVs Should Be Driven Into a Truck Lane
Big guys on the right, little guys on the left. It has a nice ring, doesn't it?
by John Balzar
Fine, OK. You want your SUV truck. You need it. Not only that, it's your right. Right? Didn't the Army do battle in Kuwait and Iraq so you can drive as much iron as you can afford? Don't the United Auto Workers and the visionaries at the Big Three (do they still call them that?) know what's best, as always?
I feel as if I'm back in the early years of the tobacco debates. Common sense is a weak rival to desire.
So maybe it's time to alter course radically in this debate about highway mileage standards. Conservationists and sensible citizens of all stripes would do better to surrender their complaints against the gas-guzzling SUV crowd. It's apparent with the latest vote in the Senate that they aren't going to win anyway. The country is tight in the grip of a socially aggressive fad that just won't yield to reason.
Before we make ourselves crazy, we should reach accommodation. Live and let drive.
The SUVers want all the advantages of trucks, great. Let 'em roar. They don't want to be held to the mileage standards of regular automobiles? Swell, never mind.
Safety has emerged as the molten core of the freedom-of-choice SUV debate--more important than energy independence, our shaky and dangerous sources of oil supply, global warming and the last of our wilderness. For now, let's concede that safety is paramount. Both for the SUVers and for those of us who think that half a V-8 is plenty, and it's silly to get caught up in this pyramid scam of marketing in which every bigger SUV has to be topped by another bigger still, all for our own good.
SUVs are trucks; they're special. In return, and for reasons of safety, they, along with pickups and their hybrid cousins, should be treated as trucks. Eureka, we could start with three steps:
* Lower speed limits. On some of the highways where I drive, truckers are restricted to a lower speed limit--say, 55 mph instead of 65. This is for safety's sake. Slower is safer. And since the SUVers are concerned about safety above all, slow them down. It would be less dangerous for them (cannot deny that, can you?) and it would be far safer for those of us who drive Honda Civics.
Personally, I think the limit ought to be 45 mph for trucks, and perhaps the Teamsters would support me on this. That would make for less dangerous roads and create more jobs for truck drivers.
* Lane restrictions. Some states, including California, restrict trucks to the right-hand lanes on major freeways. So let's put the SUVs there too. Since they are going to be traveling slower, that's where they belong anyway.
Those of us who drive 33-miles-per-gallon cars instead of their 12-miles-a-gallon behemoths would at last be able to see where we're going. Big guys on the right, little guys on the left. It has a nice ring, doesn't it? With safety a shared concern, who could possibly argue with the wisdom of lane separation? Oh yes, that would include a prohibition on SUVs in carpool lanes too. For safety's sake. True, this step won't help much on city streets. But it's a start.
* Increased vehicle fees. This is a big one. Years ago, pickup trucks were licensed as commercial vehicles and paid premiums for registration. We should revamp and modernize this idea to account for the added costs SUVs impose on society.
As ultimately happened with tobacco, Americans decided that personal actions jeopardizing public health should be taxed unmercifully. The same should apply right away to SUVs with stiff new truck fees.
I am speaking of pollution. Not only do these vehicles burn 21/2 times more gas than a five-passenger sedan, but even in states like California, with its strictest-in-the-nation emission standards, truck-class vehicles are given a pollution loophole, at least through 2007. Thus, a Dodge Ram 3500 emits eight times as much carbon monoxide per mile as my Civic, according to the California Air Resources Board. A Chevy Suburban belches three times as much oxides of nitrogen, a chief contributor to smog, and a Ford Excursion twice as much.
New research, compiled recently by Times writer Gary Polakovic, confirms that these components of air pollution cause birth defects in urban populations. They damage the health of young children, with likely consequences throughout their lives. If it's right to tax smokers, it's just as right to tax SUVers for the same reasons.
Surely, safety-minded soccer moms in their SUVs could not argue that the extra toll their motoring takes on the health of our young should not come without a price.
It's time to treat a truck like a truck.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times