Life

BIG RIDE, BIGGER IMAGE PROBLEMS

SUV drivers face a campaign to portray them as uncaring and dangerous

JOHN DEMONT February 3 2003
Life

BIG RIDE, BIGGER IMAGE PROBLEMS

SUV drivers face a campaign to portray them as uncaring and dangerous

JOHN DEMONT February 3 2003

BIG RIDE, BIGGER IMAGE PROBLEMS

Life

JOHN DEMONT

SUV drivers face a campaign to portray them as uncaring and dangerous

THERE’S A NEW FACE on the wanted posters in the war on terrorism. Meet Maureen Mitchell, soccer-mom and airline customer service agent who makes Halifax the centre of her nefarious activities. Don’t be fooled by her cover story: at 40, she’s a member of the PTA and a pillar in the local Catholic parish. She buys organic foods, won’t use pesticides on her lawn and donates money to the local animal shelter. She even has one of those Norman Rockwell-perfect families—three pleasant kids and a husband named Randy, an investment company executive who coaches baseball and basketball. But American author and pundit Arianna Huffington and her Hollywood buddies can see through all that. They know that when she’s not busy as the lunch program coordinator at Le Marchant-St. Thomas School, Mitchell is likely helping to bankroll al-Qaeda. Or that while chauffeuring Erin, 10, Liam, 7, and Hannah, 5, back and forth

from play dates, the soft-spoken brunette is ensuring the next Hamas bomb goes off in a crowded Israeli square.

How have they discovered her terrible secret? Simple: she drives an Acura MDX. A sport-utility vehicle. And SUV drivers—as pointed out in a series of TV ads partly funded by Huffington and a group of Hollywood heavyweights that includes Seinfeld cocreator Larry David, film producer Steve Bing and TV producer Norman Lear—are in league with America’s terrorist enemies. One ad features a hapless SUV driver called George pumping gas into his vehicle while an oil company executive steps into a limousine and turban-wearing soldiers fire automatic rifles into the air. “This is George,” a child says in voice-over. “This is the gas that George bought for his SUV. This is the oil company executive who sold the gas that George bought for his SUV. These are the countries where the executive bought the oil,

that made the gas that George bought for his SUV. And these are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV.”

Talk about jumping on the bandwagon. Huffington, an iconoclastic author and commentator, used to drive a Lincoln Navigator, a giant even among SUVs. But that was more than a year ago, back in the days when SUVs were a sign of macho independence, perhaps best exemplified by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infatuation with the Hummer, the U.S. military behemoth. Now, however, SUVs are suffering from a massive image problem. In many minds, they’ve become the outstanding symbol of a greedy, arrogant and uncaring society.

Drive an SUV today and you’re not just— to increasingly vocal critics—an inconsiderate road hog and an advertisement for status-obsessed conspicuous consumption.

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You’re also an environmental menace who couldn’t care less about the Kyoto Protocol’s strategy to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. To some SUVphobes, you’re nothing less than a potential murderer-research shows that SUVs pose a greater danger to pedestrians and other drivers than cars. At the very least, you’re viewed as uninformed, since by now it’s common knowledge that SUVs are more likely to roll than other vehicles. In fact, if you happen to get into an accident while driving one, there’s a greater chance you’ll be paralyzed or die than if you’d been in a car.

It’s not just TV talking heads like Hufifington who have serious issues with SUVs. To some church groups, driving one is simply immoral. “What would Jesus drive? ” the Pennsylvania-based Evangelical Environmental Network asked last year in TV commercials that advocated fuel efficiency. Certainly not an SUV. U.S. eco-terrorists have defaced and vandalized the lumbering vehicles with acid, hatchets and arson. Newspaper editorialists rail against them. So do scientists and environmentalists with a tendency to plaster their own modestly sized vehicles with anti-SUV bumper stickers. “We’re becoming like the fur coat wearers were back in the 1980s,” says Mimi Iatrou, 45, a Halifax bar owner who drives a 2002 GMC Envoy. He’s not one to be cowed by the critics. “I’m just waiting for someone to come after me with a can of spray paint,” he says.

The anti-SUV movement even has a bible, a best-seller called High and Mighty— SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, by New York Times writer Keith Bradsher. SUV owners, he argues, aren’t just a danger to themselves and others—they’re also deeply flawed human beings. Citing the auto industry’s own market research, he describes SUV drivers as “insecure and vain. They are ffequentiy nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centred and selfabsorbed, with little interest in their neighbours and communities. They are more restless, more sybaritic, and less social than most Americans are. They tend to like fine restaurants a lot more than off-road driving, seldom go to church and have limited interest in doing volunteer work to help others.”

All of which is news to Iatrou, an engaging father of two young children who drives 400 km from Halifax to see his inlaws in Saint John, N.B., half a dozen times a year. “I live in snowy Nova Scotia, not Hollywood,” he says, “and if I think an SUV is the best way to keep my kids safe, no idiot with a talk show is going to tell me not to.” Bradsher’s description hardly seems to fit Maureen Mitchell, either. She used to drive a station wagon but found that with three kids she needed more space. She also appreciates the increased visibility and four-wheel drive that her SUV offers during the 40 km drive to her job at Halifax International Airport. Now she wonders why SUVs are getting all the bad ink. “Minivans are hard on gas too,” she says. “How come nobody’s campaigning to ban them?”

Typical owners, says a best-selling book, are insecure and vain, nervous about their marriages, selfcentred and self-absorbed

She has a point. Her Acura SUV uses 13.9 litres per 100 km in the city, not much more than the 12.3 for the most fuel-efficient minivan of the same model year. (A station wagon, however, would be in the eightto nine-litre range.) True, the real monster SUVs use more gas. But on some level, the backlash is clearly as much about perception as reality: minivans—no matter how much gas they use—enjoy a reputation as a practical, less ostentatious solution to the space problem for families.

Even so, the anti-SUV movement is proving slow to sway consumers. Last year, SUV sales in the U.S. were up six per cent from the previous year. The SUV share of the Canadian marketplace exploded from one per cent in 1981 to 10 per cent by 1998. But word is getting out about the downside of these hulks. According to a survey commissioned by Goodyear Canada and released in November, 39 per cent of Canadians felt drivers should have to pass a more rigorous test before being allowed to get behind the wheel of an SUV.

And Ottawa may be about to crack down on gas consumption. Talks are underway with automakers to reach the federal goal of a 25-per-cent improvement in fuel economy by 2010 for both passenger cars and the light-truck category, which includes SUVs as well as minivans and pickups. Being classified as trucks—in Canada and the U.S.— means the vehicles don’t have to meet the same stringent emission standards as cars. Now American authorities are under pressure to change that categorization. “We’d probably try and follow what they do,” says Peter Reilly-Roe, chief of vehicle fuel efficiency at Natural Resources Canada.

Automakers, meanwhile, are sending a mixed message. The Detroit auto show, the annual January showcase of the latest in road metal, featured a new crop of full-sized SUVs. But General Motors Corp. will also introduce its advanced hybrid system—using electricity at low speeds and while idling, and gas at high speeds—as an energy-efficient option on some of its trucks, SUVs and midsized sedans. The automakers can read the polls as well as anyone. Demonizing SUV drivers may not be fair, but public opinion can be an unstoppable force. Just ask the women who used to wrap themselves in their fulllength minks—before putting on a fur became synonymous to many with cruelty, selfishness and outdated thinking. liH