Cheap gasoline summons the dread SUV from its jumbo grave
Environmentally, oil prices are a wash, no matter what. If oil prices rise, people use less of the stuff, but there’s more financial incentive to dig it up. If oil prices fall, as OPEC has been helping them do lately, fracking operations dry up. (The profit margins are so thin that even being exempt from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund Act, the Community Right to Know Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act doesn’t make the cost of extracting the fuel worthwhile.)
But there’s a dark side: The bane of my Midwestern childhood, that most dad of dad vehicles, the SUV, fueled by the recent glut of subprime auto loans, has clawed its way out of the grave and back into automobile showrooms.
When I was growing up in Michigan, buying an SUV was a patriotic act. Hadn’t SUVs saved General Motors in the 1990s, by showing that people were willing to pay an insane markup to buy a Jeep bolted onto a truck chassis? Every year they seemed to get bigger and bigger, and acquire more and more outlandish features — like these enormous chrome grilles the size of locomotive cowcatchers. I rode a bike to my summer job, and while I did not have the gas bill of someone driving a tank that got 33 miles to the gallon, it was pretty clear that if I stayed in my childhood neighborhood, I was going to get creamed by one of those things eventually. They raised the driver so high off the ground that it was difficult to see cyclists or pedestrians over the hood.
People loved SUVs because they felt safe, but that was a little dubious. There was some reason to believe that it was safer to be in one if you were in an accident — but also reason to believe that if you were in one, you were more likely to be in an accident in the first place. In my Michigan childhood, the first snow was a magical time when we would wake up and find the low-slung factories and suburbs around us transformed into glittery white cupcakes, always with a light scattering of SUVs crashed in the ditches by the side of the road. They looked like they could totally handle snow! They had those big tires, high road clearance, four-wheel drive. But it is a brutal truth of physics that increasing your car’s ability to start moving does not make it any better at stopping.
The safety-minded teenager was better off doing donuts at 2 a.m. in the parking lot of Universal Mall in a compact car. Lower center of gravity = harder to flip. As a bored Midwesterner with access to a Honda Civic, I took full advantage of this. I encourage our nation’s auto buyers to make the same calculations in their vehicle purchases.