In our SUV-studded future, all the world is a road

March 26, 2002|By John Young

WACO, Texas - One of the victims of the fiscal 2003 BushCheney Corp. budget is federal highway spending, something even fiscal conservatives admit we need.

But the supporters of highway funds obviously haven't seen into the future like the administration has. Once all Americans are riding in off-road vehicles, we won't need roads. No need for interstate highways at all. What a savings to taxpayers that will be.

It's called the vision thing.

That vision, obviously is what motivated the U.S. Senate to skirt new fuel standards for gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

The other motivation is that, you bet, size matters for motorists. With that fixation in mind, the hulking SUV with its off-road capabilities is our manifest destiny.

A chicken in every pot, an Explorer in every garage.

SUVs make roads perfunctory. Notice the increasing number of make-shift off-ramps on the nation's highways - call them pop-ramps - where numbers of motorists have grown tired of stacked-up construction traffic and just gone right over the curb and to the service road.

Who needs roads, or ramps, anyway?

Notice the advertisements for SUVs - you know, "Take me with you - take me anywhere," through jungles, across creeks, up bluffs, across tundra, onto scenic buttes. Let's all go off-road. In the SUV era, all of the world is a road.

Giant SUVs are an ingenious innovation. They can take you wherever you want - pavement not required. Then when the planet runs out of oil, they are big enough to serve as the new family home. So when your Ford Excursion runs out of gasoline for good, be sure it's parked atop a scenic national treasure, and enjoy the view.

Before getting back to manifest destiny, it's worth pointing out that four-wheel-drive vehicles are not manifestly decadent or gas-guzzling. There are passenger-size SUVs, most of them imports, that meet the needs of four-wheel drive without also requiring a Saudi oil field for sustenance.

Such vehicles definitely are useful in icy conditions and for dealing with snowy mountain passes, or of course navigating mountain Jeep trails.

More and more, however, the justification for these vehicles is size - weight and height - supposedly for safety's sake. However, as demonstrated by the recent spate of tire blowouts and rollovers, these top-heavy cars are not necessarily the safer alternative, especially at raceway speeds.

Mostly, SUVs are a puzzle - made for off-road purposes but swiftly becoming an around-town staple. Why?

It must be that the owners and the industry assume we don't have enough roads to go around. When we drive "cross country" we now can mean it literally.

Before we have cars that hover, we have cars that scale bluffs, climb mountains and essentially go wherever the heck they please.

Manifestations of the off-road pathology are plentiful, and not always involving SUVs. Proponents of mountain bikes are the first to step up and oppose any attempt to set aside wilderness. It is their right to claim every brook and bluff, because they have wheels. Or so they assert.

Snowmobilers went to court to challenge limits on their numbers in Yellowstone National Park, whose skies were being left milky by belching noise machines.

And now Texas has its own off-road controversy, this time involving its riverbeds.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recently said it has no legal authority to bar motor vehicles from rivers and creeks, though the officials believe off-road vehicles are destroying some stream beds.

The Nueces River Authority asked the state to intervene after large congregations of trucks and SUVs were marring the riverbed. The state said the next legislature will have to rule on it. A joint committee on water resources is studying the matter.

Let's hope that lawmakers will have the spine to say that rivers are not roads, and that just because a vehicle has the clearance to make it into the riverbed doesn't make it the river's ruler.

Expect to hear the plea that to protect rivers this way is to deny motorists a way of life and destroy the family fabric.

What they really mean is that there's no place where four wheels and an exhaust pipe should be denied. It is our destiny.

The Earth, meanwhile, can fend for itself.

John Young is opinion page editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald.

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