Gregg Easterbrook has a piece in today’s TNR joining the growing anti-SUV bandwagon.
Perhaps the most tiresome defense of the SUV is, “No one can tell me what I can drive.” But, of course, government can tell you what you can drive and has been doing so for years. The Bill of Rights creates two specially protected areas of possessions: militia arms and just about anything–newspapers, magazines, books, movies, tickets to live performances–connected with political or artistic expression. But there’s no constitutional right to own devices society thinks you shouldn’t have (burglar tools, for example) or substances society thinks you shouldn’t have (dynamite, anthrax spores) or to operate machines that pose threats to others (you need a license to fly a plane or drive a bulldozer, and these licenses are hard to obtain). All kinds of products and purchases are regulated by law, and courts generally uphold such laws so long as they are reasonably related to the public good.
Well, sure. Motor vehicles are all regulated by government. The question is why should SUV’s–a rather murky class that ranges from RAV4s to Escalades–be treated differently than other types of personal vehicles? They’re basically pickup trucks with a built-in camper shell. Or a little better looking version of the station wagon. Indeed, it’s fair to say that SUVs are the “assault rifles” of the road–undefinable but everyone agrees that they’re bad.
Set aside the aesthetics of the SUV and the mega-pickup–most new pickup trucks are used as cars, not for commercial or work purposes. Think only of the fuel consumption. In 2003, new regular cars averaged 24.8 miles per gallon, new SUVs averaged 17.8 miles per gallon, and new pickups averaged 16.8 miles per gallon, according to Bush administration figures. And these are just “laboratory standards” of fuel consumption–calculations based on extremely unrealistic tests in which SUVs and pickups are accelerated gently with their air-conditioners turned off, and never, ever driven above the speed limit. Real-world fuel economy is usually about 20 percent less than the official government number, suggesting the real-world MPG of new SUVs is a pathetic 14 miles per gallon.
Aren’t fuel economy ratings for everything from a Toyota Prius hybrid to a Mack truck calculated in that manner? Or are people in SUVs more likely to employ air conditioning and poor acceleration techniques?
The idea that there’s a right to own a monstrous personal conveyance that wastes gasoline, causes road rage, and, most significantly from the public-good standpoint, increases traffic fatalities, is nonsense.
The study he refers to is conveniently unavailable to non-subscribers. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the trends he cites are correct. Why stop at SUVs? Why not ban all but the safest, most fuel efficient car? Isn’t a minivan–let alone a conversion van–just as large as an SUV? Is it the SUV that inspires drivers to road rage, or is it that the type of people who by SUVs are more predisposed to it?
Indeed, Easterbrook makes my rebuttal for me in his closing paragraph:
Cars need decent acceleration to merge or pass, but today’s average car has more acceleration than necessary for any non-road-rage purpose. High horsepower is used for speeding, drag-racing from stoplights, and cutting other drivers off, all antisocial purposes. The antisocial nature of the power in some new cars borders on obscene. The Porsche Cayenne Turbo (450 horsepower), Mercedes S55 AMG (493 horsepower and a “worst” rating from the EPA on greenhouse gases) and Jaguar S-Type R (390 horsepower) are among cars that do zero to 60 in less than 6 seconds, which is racetrack acceleration. Even some affordable, mainstream new cars such as the Acura TL (270 horsepower) have this kind of hostile super-speed. In real-world conditions, such speed is used solely to cut other drivers off–and to waste fuel, making the Saudis smile.
With the possible exception of the Porsche Cayenne, none of those cars are SUVs! Easterbrook seems to be objecting to expensive, high performance vehicles rather than to any specific vehicle type. They’re all more fun than anyone really needs, after all.