Officials can't do without their SUVs, but I can

Comment

August 01, 1999|By Norris West

WE LEARNED recently that a number of area government leaders -- environmentally conscious ones -- are tooling around in some of the biggest gas guzzlers on the market.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening apparently needs his Lincoln Navigator to scale mountains in his journeys to Western Maryland. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke must need a Ford Expedition to climb Druid Hill?

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Harford County Executive James N. Harkins also drive gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. So do some County Council members, including a former director of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club.

So did I, until defecting from the ranks of SUV owners to choose a more gas-efficient, environmentally friendly sedan, similar to the vehicle that Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens drives.

Owens' kinder choice

When Ms. Owens took office, she chose a Ford Crown Victoria -- a hefty car, but much kinder and gentler to the ozone layer than a Chevy Suburban. Howard County Executive James N. Robey also drives a Crown Victoria.

Like McMansions and the 1999 Orioles' payroll, SUVs have rightly come to symbolize overconsumption. A few SUV owners may truly need the monster-mobiles to haul loads or tow other vehicles. Perhaps some drivers need these machines to climb the Appalachians on a regular basis or to power through swamps and slush.

More often, however, owners of sport utilities drive solo in traffic with the rest of us, on smooth highways in Maryland and elsewhere during morning and evening commutes. Or to make routine trips to grocery stores and schools.

For most people, the Andre Agassi commercial that aired a few years ago to sell cameras, "Image Is Everything," might well be the sales pitch for an SUV. Advertisers were right to calculate that drivers, mostly men, would want to identify with the vehicle's brawny image. General Motors even hopes to take motor-macho to the next level by marketing the Hummer, the civilian version of the Humvee, targeting guys under 30 who can afford to pay $68,000 to $86,000 for a vehicle.

The popularity of SUVs is also probably a result of the perception -- a misperception -- that they offer much more room than your standard family-sized sedan. From the outside, the tanks look big enough to carry a baseball team, but most seat only five people comfortly.

SUV mea culpa

It was for image and size that I bought a used SUV 2 1/2 years ago. My family of five needed more space and reliability than my 1987 Honda Civic could provide. The Ford Explorer seemed the perfect choice. It appeared to give three growing children an infinite amount of room in the back seat; indeed, leg room, head room, shoulder-to-shoulder room was in abundance.

Image was, admittedly, a factor. I didn't want a minivan, the symbolic vehicle of choice for soccer moms. I'm a basketball, football and track dad; that's essentially the same thing as a soccer mom, but the SUV somehow seemed a better match.

I didn't even feel guilty about the emissions. I had owned economy cars all my adult life and convinced my conscience that I had banked enough anti-pollution credits, just like businesses argue when they seek government permission to pollute.

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, deserve credit for pushing higher-emission standards for SUVs. Sixty-five million light trucks (a category that includes pickup trucks, minivans and SUVs) emit as much smog-producing material as the 125 million cars on the road.

But my main concern when I bought the SUV was to end the battle between children for space in the back seat.

For a while, I was riding high, literally, and the children had enough room. Then I revived my Civic and quickly realized the difference in gas economy. With all the gas it was burning, the Explorer must have been cultivating global warming all by itself. In addition, the children had grown to the point that they were shoulder-to-shoulder once again. The space crunch was back.

So what was the purpose of having an SUV? Though I had used the Explorer to haul furniture and a few other big items, it rarely served that purpose. It was essentially a family car, a gas-guzzling, carbon monoxide-emitting behemoth of a family car. It was more auto than I needed.

The Explorer is gone, replaced by a family-sized sedan. Vanity prevents me from going the mini-van route. Surprisingly, the new car has almost as much room in the back for the three children as the SUV. Long trips may remain a challenge, but with two of the children approaching adulthood, it's only a matter of time before I won't have to fit five people in the car.

And as gas prices rise, I will be able to save money and, at least in my own mind, bank more of my anti-pollution credits.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. His e-mail address is norris.west@baltsun.com.

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