SUV backlash backlash

Posted: Jan 22, 2003 12:00 AM
Of the many slurs flung my way in reader e-mails, the one that really frosts me -- and can be printed in a family newspaper -- is "SUV driver." A low blow and untrue. I own a BMW convertible. It's a real car. It embraces the road, it hugs the curves, it's got a stick. The fact is, I hate SUVs. Well, not the little ones, but the monster-mobiles that could house a Third World family and lurch dangerously on the turns. Why? They're a style-crime on wheels. They drive like buses. If you're in a real car, like my dear Beamer, and surrounded by SUVs, you can't see the other cars on the road. When they're parked, they block real-car drivers' view of oncoming traffic. I do find it ironic that baby boomers, who in the '70s used to scoff at Lincoln Continentals that got 8 miles to the gallon, now own boxier, taller versions of their fathers' gas-guzzling automobile. Worse, so many SUV owners have no problem faulting President Bush for refusing to ratify the Kyoto Treaty. That is the global-warming pact that would have required the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Last time I checked, America produced 14 percent more of those gases than in 1990, and gasoline consumption was a big contributor. If SUV owners want to drive a gas-guzzler and yet insist global warming is for real, the least they could do is take a hard look in the rearview mirror. Maybe they would see that they are in no position to dish Bush for being a skeptic of global warming. Not when they apparently believe it is real, but they can drive whatever they want because only other people should sacrifice to prevent global warming. Enter the Detroit Project -- the brainchild of op-ed columnist Arianna Huffington and her Hollywood buddies. This month, the Detroit Project made news by airing clever TV spots that, taking a page from anti-drug public service announcements, equated owning an SUV with aiding terrorists. Predictably, articles followed noting that TV producer and Detroit Project signatory Norman Lear had built a 21-car garage. Fox News' Neil Cavuto challenged Huffington for preaching energy efficiency while she flies in private jets and lives in a big house that probably costs a small fortune -- and plenty of fossil fuel -- to air condition. Thus, the story moved from one of fuel-efficiency to hypocrisy. It began as self-styled SUV foes demonstrating how superior they are by telling other people not to drive SUVs. It ends with SUV owners feeling superior because at least they're not hypocrites like the Detroit Project swells. In the end, the Detroit Project may be best known for starting a new American pastime -- pointing out how other people waste oil. Everyone gets to feel virtuous. The sedan owner is less profligate than the Expedition driver. But the Expedition driver with four kids doesn't commute on a private jet. Play the game well enough and, like the Detroit Project signatories, you'll convince yourself that only others drive gas-guzzlers. It was that conceit that allowed the Detroit Project to preach that driving an SUV funds terrorism, without scolding people who drive sedans for funding the same thugs. The serious point that is lost here is that Washington should retool federal regulations so that SUVs have to meet the same fuel-efficiency standard -- 27.5 miles to a gallon of gas -- as sedans. In December, Bush boosted the fuel-efficiency standards for SUVs to 22.2 mpg by 2007 from 20.7 miles per gallon. That's a start. And it makes more sense than driving an SUV with a "Stop Global Warming" bumper sticker.