SUVs: terrors of the roadway

June 11, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Memo to the driver in the bright blue 4Runner who cut me off at the New Hampshire pass, blocked my view of the exit sign and didn't deign to look down from his perch in the high cabin of his SUV: "Buddy, there's a range war on Interstate 95 and you're mobilizing the troops."

Trust me. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a brief, personal screed against the beefed-up "archenemy of the commuter." Since then, the sheer volume of the response -- in both quantity and noise level -- convinced me that the SUVs are in the middle of a head-on cultural car clash.

The much-vaunted American love affair with the car has become a love-hate relationship with an SUV. It's a conflict mostly between men, who accounted for 90 percent of my mail and 99.9 percent of the rage for and against these road warriors.

Bad-mouthing the enemy

Many of my army of anti-SUV correspondents began -- as do so many ethnic conflicts -- with a bit of name-calling. On my side, a.k.a. the right side, Grant from Warren, N.J., suggested that we change the name from SUVs to "SPVs or Suburban Piggy Vehicles -- Piggy Trucks for short." Then Brad from Cyberspace chose to recall them "Sports Utility Cars -- i.e. SUCs." Finally Todd from Euless, Texas, passed along the crowd's favorite: "SUVs -- Stupid Useless Vehicles."

The SUV partisans of course preferred to call me names. Gary from Arcadia, Mich. -- a man who bought his SUV for "inclimate" weather -- called me "biased, uninformed self-righteous." Paul from North Carolina merely suggested "counseling."

The most intriguing, if baffling, insults were not thrown at my head but at my wheels. "My wife is safe, my kids are safe, screw your Metro," offered a classy Montclair, N.J., man. On the other hand, Terry from North Carolina concluded that I must drive a BMW.

Metro? BMW? I'm a bit weak on the inner meaning of car brands but just for the record, I drive a 7-year-old Saab.

But let's go back to the sticks and stones thrown across the fast lane. The real battle between SUV opponent and owner appears to be between those who want to stop the highway arms race and those who want to win it.

Again and again SUV opponents refer to the big bad bruisers as "dangerous lethal weapons." I'll drink to that. They up the ante by 2,000 deaths a year. But SUV owners echoed a survivalist sentiment that C.W. from Fort Worth, Texas, put this way, "If I should be in a vehicular crash, I certainly wouldn't want to be on the losing end just to please people like you." The big cry from the SUVers was "self-defense." Does that sound like Pentagonese or what?

The most irate Suburban and Durango driving men sounded as if I wanted to take away their right to an assault weapon. Fighting words came from Clay from Five Points, Calif., who ranted, "If you choose a small death trap to drive, fine. If I want to pay the extra fuel and cost of an SUV, then it's my choice, not yours!"

Manly wheels

As the war correspondent here, I am old enough to remember when the shape of a car was female, Detroit's sex appeal was all curves and cars were pitched to men with blondes draped over the hood. Now we're sold bivouac cars with brawn. It's no accident, one reader reminded me, that the Nissan Pathfinder was nicknamed the "hardbody." Or that the Dodge Durango has a style that's been dubbed "outta-my-way."

If the minivan is the soccer mom, the SUV is the muscle man, even when it's driven by a woman.

The very last word from my battle-weary readers, however, goes to Doreen of Fort Worth who describes herself as "a nice little Christian lady of 74." Doreen is sick of trying to find a parking space on the church lot, or backing out blinded by towering SUVs.

"I have been so tempted to run this ad: `Wanted, partly used WW II type army tank. Just want to drive defensively back and forth to church!' "

Second memo to my buddy in the 4Runner: When Doreen gets up in arms, watch out!

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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