Can't Tell the Terrorist By His Car

Opinion piece by Francis Volpe.

Published: 27-Feb-2003

I've known for some time that we live in a sound-bite culture, but the aftermath of last week's snowstorm brought it home to me.

Last Tuesday, I got a call from a reader demanding to know why — when we wrote our stories about last week's snowstorm — we referred to incidents where hikers were rescued or nurses transported to work by people driving, quote, "four-wheel-drive vehicles."

My reply: Because that's what they are.

Oh, no, insisted the caller: "Those are sport-utility vehicles."

Sorry, no, I replied. Not all SUVs have four-wheel drive. Nearly every SUV is offered in a two-wheel drive version, usually the entry-level model.

Many four-wheel drive vehicles are pickup trucks, which also are not SUVs. Some minivans are offered with four-wheel drive. And then there are plain ordinary cars with all-wheel drive, from Subarus to Mercedes-Benzes.

So, unless you can directly identify the vehicle involved, the generic reference to all those helpful snowstorm drivers' cars and trucks is "four-wheel drive vehicles."

Still, the caller remained irate, complaining that everybody is calling people who drive SUVs terrorists.

Here's where we get to the sound-bite culture. Nobody that I know of has ever called a Ford Explorer owner a terrorist.

The caller was referring to the ad campaign by a group called The Detroit Project. The ads satirized the TV spots created by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy connecting illegal drug use to the funding of terrorists.

The Detroit Project used this as a starting point, playing the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game to trace a typical SUV owner from the gas pump all the way back to the 9/11 perpetrators. SUVs are singled out in these ads because their high rate of sales in recent years is the main reason average fuel economy, after years of trending upward, is going back down again.

I think the drug ads are overblown. If you buy into the Drug Office's logic, then you have to consider that maybe people in the 1980s who bought cocaine from alleged CIA-affiliated pushers were actually patriots. Allegedly.

Similarly, if you buy The Detroit Project's premise, then nobody who owns a car is innocent, not even the thoughtful folks who are driving around in the 68-mpg hybrid Honda Insight. They're just less guilty.

But if everyone were a little "less guilty," maybe we could do with less oil. And if we were capable of moderating our oil purchases from the Middle East, we could use the threat of buying elsewhere to better encourage those governments to keep an eye on their local terrorists, instead of denouncing them publicly and funding them privately.

There's no question that SUVs are perfectly valid vehicles that are built for certain purposes, like driving off-road or through unplowed snow and for towing trailers. It's just that most SUV owners never do any of these things.

More to the point, the design choices that make them good for these tasks make them mediocre for day-to-day driving on ordinary roads. They handle less precisely, their poor aerodynamics and huge wheels contribute to their high gas consumption, and in accidents they're far more likely to roll over than a regular car, which puts passengers at higher risk.

Even when in their element, SUVs' abilities are controversial. The Knight Ridder News Service quoted police officers in Buffalo, N.Y. and Toronto, Ontario, who report that when the flakes start falling, it's SUVs you'll find belly up in the gutter. A body shop owner in Anchorage, Alaska is quoted as saying, "Drivers of top-heavy SUVs are the worst. I see a lot of Broncos and Blazers upside down."

That's not a function of the whole vehicle so much as a problem with one particular part — the nut behind the wheel.

But the book "High and Mighty SUVs" by Keith Bradsher quotes from the auto industry's own psychological studies of typical SUV drivers. These documents provide evidence that automakers make design and marketing decisions about SUVs based on buyers' negative personality traits like vanity, aggressive tendencies and lack of self-confidence. Which helps explain the Knight Ridder story.

To return to our caller's complaint, I'm quite happy to give credit to sport-utility vehicles — along with pickups, minivans and all-wheel-drive cars — for helping people get to their jobs back on Feb. 17. I used the shoe-leather express, myself, and I discovered on the walk that quite a few of the cars rendered undriveable by two to three feet of uncleared snow were also SUVs.

So if SUVs are not objects of terror, they're also not magic carpets. They're just tools to do a job. It's a lousy sound bite, but it'll have to do.

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