Jewish World Review Feb. 26, 2003 / 24 Adar I, 5763

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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Consumer Reports

Take that, you SUV-bashers! | We confess. We own a sport utility vehicle and we love it. (At least, Steve loves it, Cokie is not so sure. As our 2-year-old granddaughter might put it, the truck is "Teebs' toy.")

So after months of SUV-bashing by the eco-Nazis (with some self-righteous religionists thrown in), it's nice to be vindicated. All it took was one of the worst snowstorms ever to hit the East Coast. Suddenly, SUVs were in great demand. Hospitals used them to ferry doctors, nurses and patients. Soup kitchens, hospices, law enforcement agencies or just neighbors who ran out of food or medicine -- they all needed four-wheel drivers to keep them in business.

As a nursing home operator in Deptford, N.J., told a local Web site: "It's the only way people can make it in today."

Here's the best part: this show of civic responsibility directly answers the loudmouth critics who gleefully depict SUV owners as selfish, road-hogging gas-guzzlers who never think of anybody else.

Take Arianna Huffington, the writer and activist whose TV ads accuse truck owners of aiding terrorists and lacking a "sense of shared national sacrifice." Or Keith Bradsher, author of "High and Mighty" (PublicAffairs, 2002), an exercise in hysteria that declares that SUV drivers "seldom go to church and have limited interest in volunteer work."

No sense of sacrifice? Or volunteerism? Tell that to the hospital official quoted in the Washington Times, who said of local SUV drivers: "I really can't believe the outpouring of the volunteers. We've had to turn people away."

Even more offensive than Huffington and Bradsher is a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network, which is apparently within cell-phone range of Jesus and confidently declares that He would never drive an SUV.

We leave the rebuttal to Tony and Valerie Snesko, who spent last Sunday using their SUV to deliver meals to people dying of AIDS. As Tony told the Washington Times: "I figured I needed to start doing what Scripture tells me to do, which is help people in need. Where would America be without SUVs in this mess?"

Some criticisms of SUVs are clearly justified. (That's particularly true of the really monstrous ones, which are more like tanks than trucks. Our modest-sized model fits nicely into a parking space designed for a compact car.)

Fuel efficiency standards, last upgraded in 1985, are way too low and should definitely be raised. Light trucks must now average only 20.7 miles per gallon, almost 7 miles below the standard for cars, and it's time to pass a bill co-sponsored by Senators John Kerry, a Democrat, and John McCain, a Republican, that would increase that goal to 36 miles per gallon over the next 12 years.

Safety is another legitimate concern, and while SUV owners feel protected by the size and weight of their trucks, they have to recognize the damage they can inflict on smaller vehicles. One suggestion that makes sense: lower the front bumpers of SUVs, which can now squash cars that ride closer to the ground.

And we completely agree that some of the larger vehicles, like the hugely popular Hummer, are simply excuses for ostentatious excess that serve no useful purpose.

But the main reason almost 4 million SUVs were sold last year is that many of them do serve a useful purpose. We never take our truck off-road, but we take it all the time to the gardening store, where it on-loads all the mulch, seedlings and fertilizer that we need every spring.

Its large cargo compartment allows us to make fewer trips to the grocery store -- which saves energy -- and the high rear bed is a blessing for aching and aging backs.

As our grandchildren were coming to visit, we borrowed extra cribs and high chairs from a friend and were able to haul everything home in one load. When we met them at the airport, we could fit two kids, two car seats, two parents and all their luggage for a 10-day trip.

One evening Steve read the tykes a favorite old storybook, "The Little Engine That Could." That's the one about the little steam engine that rescues a stalled train and makes it over the mountain by repeating to herself, "I think I can, I think I can."

Steve recalled that story as he drove a friend home through the blizzard and turned down her unplowed street. You could almost hear the little truck saying, "I think I can, I think I can." And she did.

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© 2002, NEA