Suvs: Fuel-Wasting Garbage Trucks?

I suppose we should be gloating a bit right now, those of us who don't drive sport utility vehicles. What with the rising cost of gasoline putting the squeeze on folks who tool about town in the reputedly bigger-is-better tanks, the current gas crunch is merely a case of "what goes around, comes around," right? But whenever I think about how truly wasteful those behemoths are, I feel despondent, not smug, because I know that their gross fuel inefficiency affects us all.

I admit it. I have never liked SUVs, and I'm as tired of their overblown proportions as anyone else. I'm frustrated when I have to strain to see through or around them while I'm driving in traffic. And I'm fed up with having to squeeze into my parked car because an SUV driver has wedged his or her vehicle too close to mine. I'm pretty sure I could learn to cope with these minor inconveniences, if there wasn't the much broader issue of how SUVs hurt our environment.

Many of us are old enough to remember the gasoline shortage of the '70s, when car owners waited to refuel on the day of the week that corresponded with their odd- or even-numbered license plates. We vividly remember when there were so many cars lined up at the pumps that they overflowed out of the service-station driveways. We can recall when terms such as "Earth Day," and "recycling" came into our collective consciousness. And while a subject such as ozone depletion may have initially seemed too remote to concern us, all we've needed to do lately is look at changing weather patterns to realize that hey, our actions do affect our environment.

Why, then, do our automakers mass-produce vehicles that burn through precious fossil fuel and spew pollution? Why have so many consumers been so quick to embrace SUVs? I know one family of four--two adults and two teenagers--who each drive their own SUV. The front of their house resembles a truck stop more than a residential driveway. Any day I'm half-expecting them to install a gas pump next to the mailbox.

We've all heard SUV owners' arguments for these testaments to excess: how they're ideal for off-road driving and convenient for carpooling and hauling. In my neighborhood, though, the tires of the SUVs are always showroom-clean and there's rarely ever more than one passenger and a Labrador retriever inside (and never a boat or horse trailer attached to them). And it may be true that SUVs provide a measure of safety for their occupants, but what about the other drivers on the road? Not long ago a friend of mine was involved in a collision with an SUV. While damage to the light truck was minimal, the injuries to my friend and her car were greatly exacerbated by the disparity in vehicle sizes.

Reports of the SUV's poor emissions records have been trumpeted by environmental groups for years. Some of the vehicles, we read, actually spew as much pollution as two average-size cars. "It's basically a garbage truck that dumps its pollution into the sky," said the director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program when Ford unveiled its nine-passenger, 12-mile-per-gallon Excursion back in February of 1999. You read right--12. The Model T probably did better than that.

Last month Ford took an important first step when it admitted publicly that its approach to SUVs and the environment has not always been a responsible one. Admission or no, Ford and the rest of the auto industry continue to reap tremendous profits from our insatiable appetite for these steroid-pumped vehicles, and they don't appear likely to dramatically alter their latest recipe for success.

If there's one positive thing that can be said about the current gas dilemma, it's that maybe a few potential SUV buyers will come to their senses when they realize how much it will cost to keep these giants fueled. But I sometimes wonder whether these trend-followers are too self-involved to possess any sense in the first place. I find it extremely insulting, for example, to see how many of these gas guzzlers are now sporting environmental-protection-theme license plates. I don't know if those drivers are trying to alleviate their guilt by directing a nominal portion of their annual DMV fees toward environmental causes. The truth is they may as well be using the images of Yosemite, the Everglades and Cape Cod for target practice.

Yes, I suppose we should be feeling somewhat smug, we non-SUVers.

But we're not. Maybe we're bigger than that.