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SUV road warriors fight backlash
(February 08,2003 )(Agencies)
Encased like a tiny insect in a massive black Toyota Landcruiser, Shirley Collenette admits feeling a little guilty about her gas-guzzling, smog-inducing, planet-warming, road-hogging "armor," as she calls her sport-utility vehicle.
But need is stronger than guilt.
"The world is becoming a harder and more violent place to live, so we wrap ourselves with these big vehicles," said Collenette, a 46-year-old mother of two. "It's like riding a horse. You have more power."
Like many SUV owners in Marin County, this corner of Northern California where wealth and liberal politics converge, Collenette has found herself stuck on the on-ramp of a politically and culturally fraught freeway. A fledgling anti-SUV crusade has suddenly joined the list of trendy anti causes - anti-smoking, anti-furs, anti-nonorganic-nonshade-grown coffee - and this has some members of the upper middle class bristling in their bucket seats.
The hostility seems to be everywhere, with attacks from all directions:
Here comes the columnist Arianna Huffington and her nonprofit Detroit Project, with its soul-wrenching television commercials linking SUVs to support of terrorism.
The Evangelical Environmental Network, a coalition of Christian groups, declares Jesus "Lord over transportation choices" and runs TV ads asking, "What would Jesus drive?" (Answer: not an SUV.)
Earth on Empty, a group of Boston artists, plasters fake parking tickets on SUV windshields that instruct drivers to "try to get honest with yourself." The Earth Liberation Front claims to have torched SUVs recently at a Pennsylvania car dealership. The posters at the recent anti-war rally in San Francisco said, "Draft SUV drivers first."
To the backlashers against the backlash, the Marin soccer moms loaded with children, groceries and equipment for weekend ski trips, it can feel like a personal affront.
"How else am I going to get four children from A to B?" said Zoe Daffern, 41, from Kentfield, clearly exasperated. "I don't think we're going to solve the world's problems by getting rid of SUVs." She certainly is not getting rid of her black Chevy Suburban. "It gives you a barrier, makes you feel less threatened," she said. "There's no way you can be ignored in an SUV."
Although one of every four new cars sold in the United States last year was an SUV, the politics of SUVs is heating up, particularly as the nation prepares for war in the oil fields of Iraq.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it might propose safety standards that would force substantial design changes in SUVs, including possibly lowering the hulking profile of the biggest models. Also, in response to current tax law that allows businesses to deduct up to $25,000 for supersized luxury vehicles like the Hummer, Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, recently introduced a bill to encourage fuel-efficent vehicles.
The SUV embodies many ironies in the culture, as a vehicle marketed for its rugged independence that nevertheless has serious social costs, from smog to rollovers, said Sarah Jain, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Stanford University. "It represents the inability of Americans to make a connection between consumption decisions and their social impact," said Jain, who teaches a course on car culture. "The war - and the Huffington ads - are giving voice to that frustration."
The Huffington ads are being financed by a $200,000 war chest. Critics from within the auto industry and elsewhere have noted that the ads contain their own social irony: Huffington, who lives in a mansion in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, exchanged her Lincoln Navigator for a Toyota Prius.
Csaba Csera, the editor of Car and Driver magazine, said the vilification of SUVs seemed somewhat arbitrary. The gas mileage of the pickup truck - including the best-selling Ford F series - is just as horrendous as any SUVs, he said. "I don't see how commuting to work in a 5,000-pound pickup is any less sinful than a 5,000-pound SUV," Csera said.
The image of the SUV taps into deep-seated yearnings in the contemporary psyche, said Clotaire Rapaille, a medical and cultural anthropologist in Boca Raton, Florida. With their image of strength, power and size, the SUV connects to "reptilian" instincts that are important for reproduction and survival.
The current attacks on SUVs, he added, "are very cortex, very intellectual. My theory is the reptilian always wins."
Gigi Betta, 44, a San Francisco caterer who drives a mini SUV Land Rover, had this to say about the SUV haters: "It's not what you drive, it's how much you drive. I think they're targeting a lifestyle they don't approve of - mothers with the 2.2 children in the back, the short-distance shuttlers."
Among the moms is Sharrel Grootboom, 45, a nursing assistant in Oakland who was loading up her LandRover with groceries the other day. She has four children, sings in a choir and frequently plays gospel music in the car.
What would Jesus drive? "There's nothing religious about SUVs," she said. "God gave me this vehicle. I love my vehicle."
(New York Times, US)
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