SUV owners overlook the needs of others on the road

They are the vehicular equivalent of yakking incessantly at the movies, wearing a tank top to a restaurant or carrying 20 items up to the express cashier in the supermarket. They are big SUVís, and what they are in most cases is a case of bad manners.

Most of the objections to these behemoths of the macadam you hear focus on their voracious appetite for fuel. Parvenu Arianna Huffington doubled her talk-show appearances with a public relations effort equating healthy gasoline purchases to writing a check directly to Osama Bin Laden.

This is not really a fair charge Ė though the big American flag decal on a Yukon XL can seem a bit much Ė unless one is prepared to condemn all the ways in which we devour petroleum products. We Americans love our fossil fuels Ė and have the planes, boats, furnaces, and John Deere lawn tractors to prove it.

And as Walter Brooke said to Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate," letís remember "plastics." Those come from oil, too. I donít know about you, but theyíd have to pry the Saran Wrap from my cold, dead fingers.

No, the real "menace" of SUVís is how their presence on the road affects other drivers. Some of it is mere inconvenience and some of it is life-threatening, posing more than the requisite dangers anytime a metal conveyance is traveling at speed. And all of it dispenses with the thing we used to call common courtesy.

To begin with, big SUVís are . . .big. If you are behind one them, you canít see around them and other drivers canít see you. If you want to know fear, try trailing one on a motorcycle: sooner or later an oncoming car will take a left in front of you because, not knowing you were there, it waited for the SUV to pass and then turned to port. The same thing happens to cars.

And backing out of a space if one is parked next to say, a Ford Expedition, means you are backing blindly. One canít see oncoming traffic until one is in it. One of the reasons I got rid of my convertible was because, with the top up, the small rear window had very poor visibility in a back-up situation. SUVís cause the same nuisance to car drivers without the compensating al fresco benefits of a ragtop.

If youíre fastidious about your car, youíve probably noticed a few extra dings in your side panels. Parking spaces are usually car-sized and SUV doors are going to swing out beyond their allotted space.

More significantly, SUVís kill people. In the highly-praised and much-maligned book, "The High and Mighty," author Keith Bradsher states that every year 2000 people die in automobile accidents who would not otherwise have perished if an SUV had not been involved in the crash. Half of these people are occupants of the SUVís.

The methodology of Bradsherís numbers is open to some debate, but few dispute that high-riding SUVís are significantly more lethal in collisions with cars. Much of this is due to their height Ė in a side-impact their bumpers aim for the head instead of the door panel. And the oft-seen and ludicrous steel grille guards compound the situation.

SUVís also have greater stopping distances than cars Ė this is just physics, they are bigger and heavier. All drivers have been in situations where theyíve managed to stop just a few feet of hitting something. If that something is a kid on a bike, those few feet can mean life or death.

The death rate for people in SUVís is also higher than for big car and minivan passengers and drivers. SUV drivers die in rollover accidents at a rate three times higher than in cars. Some of this has to do with a phenomenon called "tripping, " whereby the high bumpers catch on something like a guardrail designed for cars and then flip the vehicle over.

This is why it is so puzzling that so many SUV owners cite safety as a reason for owning them. While it is true that they are safer in certain types of head-on collisions, their death rate is actually higher overall than for larger cars and minivans.

The other rationales for owning them are also dubious. People say they need them for getting around in the snow, but they are just as popular in Florida as they are in Connecticut. Four-wheel drive is available on scores of cars and minivans. And you have to wonder how any of us survived the blizzards of our youth when we were being chauffeured around in Momís Country Squire. My mother had a 1962 Ford Falcon wagon and Iím still here to tell the tale.

SUV owners point to passenger and cargo capacity, but minivans offer the same capaciousness and are safer for occupants and other drivers. Let us accept that there are, for some owners, legitimate work-related reasons, just as there are for big pickup trucks. But not everyone carries a load of cinder blocks around.

No, people drive these things because they like their size and presence. Most everyone I know who has one says they enjoy the aspect of "sitting above everyone else." The thing is, if you are looking over people that means they canít see around you. Itís like saying, "my needs outweigh your needs."

Which is precisely the definition of bad manners.


March 15, 2003