SUVs: a false luxury the world can no longer afford
On August 26, upon opening the "Insight" section of the Boulder
Daily Camera, I was treated to an essay from one Tom Precourt, who was apparently
trying to rationalize his choice of a Chevy Suburban in the face of growing
public outrage at these SUVs and the people who drive them. I'd like to take
the opportunity to correct some factual errors in that piece and then have
a stab at answering his question about why SUVs and SUV owners are being
singled out for criticism.
Mr. Precourt also states that he needs the extra room available in a full-sized SUV. Imagine his chagrin when he learns that at 74 cubic feet, the Grand Caravan has almost the same amount of usable space inside as the Suburban, at 77 cubic feet (Consumer Reports, April 2001). The Caravan also has about the same amount of head and leg room, and is available with AWD, which is much safer and more practical for on-road driving than the 4WD offered in the Suburban.
And as a final factual issue, he states that "you'd be surprised at the low gas mileage that many minivans get." Well, compared with a small car, a Caravan at 17 mpg (according to Consumer Report's ratings, which tend to be much more realistic than the EPA's) doesn't look so hot until you compare it with the 13 mpg achieved by the Suburban. To view that another way, a 30-percent increase is vastly larger than the increment in oil production that drilling in the ANWR will provide. Is the sacrifice of one of the last truly wild places on the planet a reasonable exchange for the indulgence of driving an SUV instead of a minivan or wagon?
Another detail that is overlooked by Mr. Precourt is that, because of their inadequate bumpers and mismatching bumper height, property damage claims for SUVs are nearly twice as high as for cars. These factors combined with their greater weight also mean that a collision with an SUV is much more likely to cause injury or death for the occupants of a vehicle of standard height. Does it bother him even a little that everyone suffers greater risk and must pay more for car insurance, even if they don't drive an SUV, because he and people like him choose SUVs over minivans or wagons?
Since the facts don't support his decision, there must have been some other reason, Mr. Precourt chose a Suburban. Fortunately, he did, probably inadvertently, provide us with a glance into the inner workings of the mind of an SUV owner. His attempt at humor, "Friends don't let friends drive minivans," I think probably captures one of his most important motivations for choosing an SUV over a safer and more practical vehicle: peer pressure. While typically only considered an important decision-making factor for high school students, the desire to look cool or macho is probably the number-one factor in the conversion of otherwise-rational adults into SUV buyers. The other main reason is an even more basic psychological phenomenon: fantasy. While Mr. Precourt only touches on this in his essay, the images of SUV owners driving wildly through an unspoiled wilderness we see so often in the advertising for these vehicles I think appeals to some fundamental urge in the human species to "boldly go where no man has gone before." Never mind the fact that even according to the SUV manufacturers' own research, very few of them will ever be driven off-road. Or that even those few will, by their very nature, end up destroying the very wildness the fantasy requires.
Which leads me to Mr. Precourt's central question, "Why are SUVs and SUV owners singled out for scorn?" I didn't exactly follow his hand-waving about how everyone who drives a car should share equally in his guilt. I'm also not sure why he brought up the hypocrisy of people who call themselves environmentalists and yet commute or run errands in a full-sized SUV or pickup truck (and one can only hope that the "growing family" he states as the reason for needing a larger vehicle won't include more than two non-adopted children; there is no greater hypocrisy than calling oneself an environmentalist and then intentionally procreating more than two children).
It seems to me the core issue here is an individual's relative contribution to degradation of the environment and our social fabric. While I agree with his general statement that we are all "big-time consumers," the SUV backlash is about our coming to the realization that this is not such a good thing. We all know that we can't just turn off the oil spigot all at once, but most people realize that we must start gradually weaning our civilization from fossil fuels. Some of us are making an effort to help achieve this, while others are not. Mr. Precourt is in the latter category and made the very conspicuous decision that his convenience/safety/fantasy is more important than his self-professed concern for the environment and the impact of his actions on other people. His poor grasp of the facts in the SUV/minivan/wagon debate (as shown above) makes him, and people like him, a worthy subject for attempts at education, and, if that fails, a reasonable target of our ridicule.
Raney is a software engineer who lives and works in Boulder.