What Are They Good For?

SUVs monopolize the road, aren't safe and wreak havoc on the environment.

Getting old is terrible. Your hair thins; your skin gets loose; your joints start occupying a sizable chunk of your attention; and you simply don't get half of what's going on. It's so humiliating to hear yourself starting sentences, "These young people today ..."

Creeping elderliness has been happening to me for some time. I often have the sense that I somehow moved to a different country without noticing it. One glaring example of my irreparable out-of-touchness is my failure to understand the SUV thing.

When I was growing up, back in the heady dawn of the granola era, coolness was all about The Whole Earth Catalog, zero population growth and less is more. The less vehicle you made do with, the hipper you were: We competed to see how far into the back of beyond we could bump our sunbleached Beetles and still return to tell the tale. The general thought was that each of us had a responsibility to the environment, and that our generation, unlike all the pathetic generations that had come before, recognized this. Yes, we were insufferable, but our intentions were good.

And now, look. Young people today covet the overpriced, freakishly inefficient rolling rec rooms called SUVs and are not ashamed. I remember making this discovery back at the Star, when a with-it young features reporter squealed with delight at the prospect of riding in a stretch Hummer limousine--a vehicle that I thought had to be an urban legend.

But it's not just this lost generation that likes the things. Most of the people who actually own the monsters are roughly my contemporaries, and they're clearly too numerous to have all been ROTC geeks and junior narcs. So who are these people?

In a recent New Yorker article, "Big and Bad," Malcolm Gladwell uses automobile makers' own marketing research to answer this troubling question. The industry has found that "SUVs tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills." There's more. Ford's SUV designers "took their cues from seeing 'fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls.'"

(Note to SUV owners: Before you fire off that scathing letter to the editor--the one you were going to instant-message from your phone while negotiating a high-speed left turn at Speedway Boulevard and Campbell Avenue--please note that I didn't say these things.)

And it turns out that while SUVs combine the look of intrepidity with the feeling of safety, test-course stats show that you're significantly less likely to die driving my 1992 Accord than a 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota 4Runner. SUVs feel safe but aren't. Fortunately for the car-makers who've been living off their hugely profitable sales for years, image-conscious buyers don't understand or care about this distinction --and are certainly indifferent to their vehicles' high kill rate.

OK. Just one last factoid, and I'll stop: While driving a Ford Windstar minivan, which is engineered like a passenger car, your chance of serious head injury in a 35 mph crash is 2 percent; in a Cadillac Escalade, which is basically a padded box bolted to a truck frame, it's 16 percent. You might as well ride a Harley.

Still, from my old-hippie point of view, the very worst thing about SUVs is their wastefulness--their hefty contribution to resource exhaustion, dependence on sketchy foreign oil regimes and, of course, climate change. (Remember the episode of The Sopranos where a fallen tree blocks Tony's luxury SUV's progress? Frustrated, Tony asks, "What is this thing good for, anyway?" His son, AJ, responds from the back seat, "Consuming as much fossil fuel as possible?" That show deserves every one of those Emmys.)

There is a weird kind of hope, though. Last week's New York Times Science section led with a story about how global warming is making it harder to drill for oil on Alaska's North Slope--not that it was ever easy. As the glaciers recede and ice cap melts, the permafrost season is getting shorter, which means that the rigs can't get out on the squishy tundra for most of the year, which means they're down to 100 days a year of oil prospecting from 200 days two decades ago.

While it's good to know that the oil industry is being inconvenienced by global warming, it's scary, too. If the planet continues to bite back, where will we end up? As post-apocalypse road warriors racing our Tahoes and Expeditions through the sand toward that last tank of gas?

Let's hope not. The things handle like a herd of sheep.

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