Honk If You Hate SUVs
Published on Friday, February 21, 2003 by the Globe & Mail/Canada
Honk If You Hate SUVs
by Laura Robinson
 

Amidst the placards at last weekend's anti-war demonstration in Toronto was one that was fitting for Canadians, and city dwellers in particular. "Sacrifice our SUVs, not our children," it read, referring to the contribution that oil addicts have made to this looming war against Iraq.

I have asked many SUV owners why they drive such a pig of a vehicle. The reply is usually the same: "Because I want my children to be safe." Herein, of course, lies the paradox. SUVs are far from safe compared to other vehicles, and particularly when compared to public transit. They aren't safe for the people in them, and they certainly aren't safe for those of us who must share the road with these monsters.

Keith Bradsher, the Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times from 1996 to 2001, spent years writing and researching High and Mighty: SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. The book, which came out in the fall, chronicles the destructive nature of these vehicles. "The safe image [of SUVs] is an illusion. They roll over too easily, killing and injuring occupants at an alarming rate, and they are dangerous to other road users, inflicting catastrophic damage to cars that they hit and posing a lethal threat to pedestrians. Their 'green' image' is also a mirage, because they contribute far more than cars to smog and global warming. Their gas-guzzling designs increase American dependence on imported oil at a time when anti-American sentiment is prevalent in the Middle East." Amen.

Mr. Bradsher warns of a phenomenon called "network externalities." Once SUVs achieve a critical mass on the road, most everyone else will seek to purchase one in order to adapt to the product's increased presence, even if that product is inferior and dangerous.

An example of this tendency, and perhaps one reason why drivers think SUVs are safer, is how their higher sight lines impair the sight lines for everyone else on the road. Even something as insignificant as backing out of a parking space becomes a calculated risk when a driver's view is blocked by two hulking pieces of machinery parked on either side of a normal-sized automobile.

I've noticed an even more dangerous phenomenon: Pedestrians, particularly children and the elderly, are at great risk around SUVs. Twice in the past week, I watched SUVs nearly hit two women pushing strollers as they walked their babies on the sidewalk. The incidents took place at a car dealership in my neighborhood where oil addicts wheel in and out, desperate for a fix.

The vehicles in question are taller than I am, and the two largest -- Tundra and Sequoia -- have been named, it seems, after areas of the Earth they have helped to destroy. Do the people who buy these vehicles really imagine they have a special connection to the natural world while driving to shopping malls?

Mr. Bradsher calls the jousting for bigger and stronger vehicles a "highway arms race." And human beings, with their unique and vulnerable bodies and spirits, have become collateral damage as these symbols of power exert their authority over our public space.

Maybe our car culture and oil addiction have landed us exactly where we deserve in the Middle East. The nasty people who consider it unnecessary to watch for human beings on the sidewalk aren't that far removed from the ones now plotting war.

Laura Robinson, a former national-level cyclist and cross-country skier, is the author of Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality.

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc

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