Published on Wednesday, April 14, 2004 by the Capital Times / Madison, Wisconsin
Terror at Home: SUVs
by Margaret Krome
The next time someone tells a smirking joke about irrational behavior of blondes, adolescents or mothers-in-law, walk them gently out into any parking lot. Point to the sport utility vehicle of your choice, and ask them whatever made them think that adult Americans are rational.
The United States consumes more oil than any other nation, two-thirds of which goes to transportation. For every gallon of gas we consume, we also thrust 24 pounds of greenhouse gas pollutants into the air, not to mention incurring smog, toxic emissions and other additional environmental costs of the drilling, refining and transporting of that fuel.
So the usual socially responsible argument is that in the interests of our nation and the environment, consumers should buy cars that don't consume too much gas. At the least, I would have thought that a serious pocketbook issue would affect people's car purchasing decisions.
Yes, increasing fuel efficiency not only reduces our dependence on foreign oil, cleans up our air and reduces toxic pollutants in the nation's environment, but it also saves money at the gas pump. Wouldn't you think that the increasing gas prices of the winter and spring, and prospects for even higher prices in the summer, would significantly reduce our nation's passion for gas guzzlers?
Oddly, industry reports last week showed no decline whatsoever. In fact, SUVs, pickup trucks and other fuel-inefficient vehicles are more popular than ever.
People buy SUVs because they like the sense of power, the fantasy of living in rugged conditions, the sense of safety. But most owners don't have miles of rugged ranchland to cover, and SUVs have a rotten safety record. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, SUVs roll over in 37 percent of fatal crashes, compared to a 15 percent rollover rate for passenger cars. In tests of how well vehicles protect the driver and passengers in a crash, none of the 13 SUVs tested was rated "good" or better. Five were rated as "acceptable," three as "marginal," and five as "poor." Further, SUVs have been shown to substantially compromise the safety of passengers in other cars on the road.
When consumers' irrational decisions jeopardize the nation's well-being, they shouldn't be left to individual choice. Car manufacturers should be obligated to increase SUVs' fuel efficiency and design them for improved safety.
There was a time when federal standards steadily helped our nation's cars gain fuel efficiency. Those Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards increased new car and truck fuel economy by 70 percent between 1975 and 1988. Since the mid-'80s, when they were left stagnant, the nation's fuel efficiency has ended its promising increase. Car manufacturers don't pursue such efficiencies on their own, and clearly, consumers aren't pursuing them either.
A couple of years ago a bipartisan amendment to the Senate Energy Bill, sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would have reintroduced fuel efficiency standards in cars and light trucks. Unfortunately, it was undercut and sidetracked. The Bush administration has steadfastly avoided supporting such standards, equally matched by congressional unwillingness to insist that car manufacturers take the lead in doing the right thing.
Every horror story I read about people killed in the fight in Iraq raises questions in my mind about more than terrorism and the quality of information informing our military actions. It also illustrates the great cost of our nation's dependence on a resource that is overwhelmingly obtained from other countries. And because it is a national security issue, conservation of that resource should become a national security issue also.
The next time you see an SUV with an American flag waving from its antenna, think of the worst blonde joke you've ever heard. The driver of that SUV deserves a louder snicker than the dopiest blonde for waving a patriotic flag but driving the most anti-social and unpatriotic kind of vehicle on the road.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003 The Capital Times