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The free ride may be over for SUVs: is there enough room left on the road for common good sense? (margin notes).

COULD THE ERA OF THE SPORT-UTILITY VEHICLE finally be drawing to a close? Critics charge that these gas-guzzling moving violations of good taste and self-restraint are nothing better than environment-stomping, high-beam blinding, road-hogging affronts to civil harmony. If you have ever had the special pleasure of returning to your mere car to discover a crashed-in grill or bumper-gouged hood left behind by a gracious SUV driver, you've probably already added an expletive-filled analysis of your own to the canon of SUV criticism.

Now born-again liberal Arianna Huffington has made a new and perhaps most damning indictment of Detroit's "light trucks": SUVs are downright unpatriotic. Huffington has launched an anti-SUV crusade called the Detroit Project ( She says SUVs contribute to America's reliance on Middle East oil, compelling an intrusive U.S. role in affairs Islamic that's fueling the animosity of budding Osama wannabes throughout the region.

There are other key indicators that the American obsession with these leviathans of the highway may be ending. An ecumenical campaign asks "What would Jesus drive?" while New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty: SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way (PublicAffairs) is enjoying strong reviews around the country.

It is Bradsher's book that will likely do the most damage to years of clever marketing aimed at constructing the Yuppie appeal and perceived invincibility of a vehicle that has been one of Detroit's most lucrative products. Bradsher writes that not only are SUVs more dangerous to pedestrians, cyclists, and occupants of other cars, but their poor handling, rollover-ready chassis, and guard rail-leaping height also disproportionately endanger the oblivious owners inside these little metal boxes. His best estimate is that SUVs currently cause close to 3,000 needless deaths a year.

According to Bradsher, loopholes in federal regulations have encouraged auto companies to make SUVs as big and wasteful as possible while congressional exemptions permit the vehicles to emit more pollutants than regular cars. And despite the image of rugged individualism and ruddy outdoorsiness that SUVs are meant to project, market research from the car manufacturers themselves indicate that most SUV owners are bad-driving, self-absorbed urbanites who actually don't spend a lot of time on mountain trails looking for rock-climbing opportunities.

As a hurtling-over-a-street-corner-near-you threat to the common good, there is a Catholic case to be made against SUVs, and, as anyone who has watched an SUV owner barrel blissfully through traffic can attest, they can be an affront to human dignity. They also come up short by any measure of good earthly stewardship.

That giant sucking sound you hear is an accelerated depletion of oil, a finite natural resource, mandated by the increasing percentage of SUVs on the nation's roads. Worse, a full-size SUV emits twice as much carbon dioxide per mile as a passenger car. It's bad enough that America has gone SUV-mad. What happens when China and other populous, emerging societies get sucked into making the same consumer choice?

Sometimes common sense has to intervene when the invisible hand of the free market is reaching into an open flame. For instance, we wouldn't let just anyone go out and buy a gun in this country. (On second thought, that may be a poor example.) Government ought to step in now and insist on some common good sense on SUVs. First, can we stop with the thin pretense of exempting SUVs from automobile miles-per-gallon requirements by classifying them as "light trucks"? Then, let's call for higher MPGs on all vehicles.

Right now, SUV owners are getting something of a free ride from the rest of us. Their presence on the road is leading to costlier and deadlier accidents, raising insurance rates that are shared by all, contributing to climate change, and, if Huffington's logic holds, helping build a more dangerous tomorrow for our children. We have to share the road. We share the risks. It is time for SUV owners to share some of the sacrifices for a saner, safer world.

By KEVIN CLARKE, managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Claretian Publications
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Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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