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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2002 / 14 Tishrei, 5763

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

Are SUV drivers are the new GOPers? | Boy, do I feel sorry for SUV drivers these days.

Consider a new book by a New York Times reporter Keith Barsher, former Detroit bureau chief. In "High and Mighty: SUVs, the World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way," Barsher not only attacks SUVs but vilifies those who drive them. To wit:

"They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities."


Now I consider myself a fair observer of my fellow man, but I don't think I could ever draw so many conclusions about a fellow based on the kind of vehicle he drives. To understand the origin of this name calling, however, it's worth learning about the origin of the SUV.

The SUV was originally developed for military use during WWII. After the war, it made a modest transition to the American market, where outdoors enthusiasts bought the four-wheel-drive "utility" vehicles to trek out into the wilderness.

Then a few things happened. In 1975 Congress began mandating improved fuel efficiency in cars. Automakers were forced to make cars smaller and lighter, and Americans were forced to end their love affair with the massive, tail-finned hunks of steel that still make many a man's heart race.

Well, in the 1980's, Detroit got clever. There was one classification of vehicles, "light trucks," that wasn't bound by strict fuel requirements. So in 1983, Detroit found a way to give us the size and space we were pining for, while maintaining half-decent fuel efficiency. It was called the minivan.

But there was soon another problem. By the 1990's, families were so embarrassed driving around in these dork-mobiles, Detroit needed to come up with another brainstorm. And, boy, did they deliver. They satisfied our lust for steel with a line of massive, testosterone-crazed gas guzzlers that got our hearts racing again. That was the beginning of the SUV boom, and today such light trucks account for half of the vehicles on the road.

Which is one reason the SUV has become a symbol of everything people love and hate about America.

See, SUV drivers praise the size and solidness of their vehicles, which makes them feel safe. But safety advocates say their high bumpers and heavy weight are no match for the smaller, lighter cars the government has forced the rest of us to drive, and that they rollover easily anyway.

Environmentalists say that SUVs waste gas and pollute way more than cars do, which is true, but others argue that the humans-are-causing-global-warming concept is based on junk science and that in a free country people should be allowed to drive any SUV they dang well please.

That brings us to the personal attacks. In addition to laying out a number safety and environmental arguments against the SUV, some of which do hold merit, Basher displays an open contempt for people who drive SUVs. This is further demonstrated in a Times piece he wrote in June of 2000.

He reported that an auto industry study demonstrated a psychological difference between those who drive SUVs (bad) and those who drive minivans (not as bad). And what is the difference?

Well, minivan drivers are more "other-oriented." They're more likely than SUV drivers to take part in conversations with their friends, attend family gatherings, read, do volunteer work, and participate in church functions. Minivan drivers are less likely to balk at being parents. They want to be in control in terms of safety, being able to park and maneuver in traffic, being able to get elderly people in and out.

But SUV drivers? They're more self-oriented. They drive faster, consider themselves better drivers than average motorists and show less courtesy on the road. They also hold a greater fear of violence and crime, which automakers exploit by designing masculine, assertive SUVs. That's why, says one psychologist, SUVs have "vertical slats across their grills to give the appearance of teeth and flared wheel wells meant to resemble bulging muscles."

Anyhow, that's the interesting origin of the SUV debate in a nutshell. The SUV phenomenon agitates so many different activist and advocate groups at once that it would have to get personal sooner or later. That's why I feel sorry for SUV drivers. They're being made out to be so self-centered and heartless.

Geez, you'd think they're some kind of Republicans.

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© 2002, Tom Purcell