Violation, U.S.A.

by Sasha Earnheart-Gold | 11/12/02 6:00am

It saddens me to read the Oct. 31 column,

"'Earth on Empty' is Full of Something Else" by Matt Soriano concerning "Earth on Empty" SUV violation tickets.

I would suggest to Mr. Soriano that it is not the Earth on Empty folks who are treating us like we are stupid, but rather the car manufacturers and oil companies. Automobile manufacturers pour millions into marketing SUVs. Why? Because the profit margin on an SUV is far greater than on a sedan -- about $16,000 on a Ford Excursion.

Although SUVs account for only 15 percent of car sales, they provide 60 percent of industry profits. If American car companies advertised efficiency and innovation, rather than how well their product can climb a sand dune, the numbers would be different.

The production of SUVs allows American auto manufacturers to continue promoting the gas-guzzler mentality of their heyday. But the '50s are over. The era of cheap and abundant oil is a distant memory. American auto manufacturers must join the rest of the world in producing and marketing efficient vehicles.

There are, of course, fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles. There are also emissions and safety requirements. The problem is that SUVs are not judged by the same standards as cars. Under the law, they are classified as light trucks and thus are subject to much less stringent requirements. This is an obvious loophole in the law. The petroleum industry and American auto lobby spend massive resources resisting any change to this legislation. Again and again they have managed to avert a strengthening of the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. In the most recent federal survey, the fuel efficiency of American automobiles has actually declined.

The light-truck loophole not only allows SUVs to avoid the fuel efficiency restrictions; it also allows much higher emissions. SUVs can release 30 percent more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75 percent more nitrogen oxides than regular cars.

In addition, putting SUVs on the road creates a public safety concern. While light trucks account for only a third of the vehicles on the road, accidents involving both a light truck and a car accounted for the majority of vehicle-vehicle fatalities in 1996.

SUVs make driving more hazardous for everyone -- even for SUV drivers. If we look at general automotive mortality figures, death rates for mid-size and smaller SUVs are higher than the average for all vehicles. This is largely because SUVs are not held to the same safety requirements as cars, in addition to their tendency to roll over in accidents.

While American auto makers continue to whine that fuel-efficient cars are too costly to produce, other manufacturers have engineered solutions. Honda and Toyota both have had fuel-efficient hybrids in production for the last few years, and Toyota has announced the introduction of a fuel-cell vehicle in 2003. People are lining up to buy them.

It is time to stop this automotive arms race, this rush to make bigger and bigger cars in order to protect ourselves from other drivers. It's time we make the road safe and the air breathable for everyone. It's time to sign the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gasses.

Let's make efficiency our goal. It might even be profitable. Of the three major auto companies, Chrysler, after a costly government bailout, was finally sold to Daimler-Benz. Ford's stock price has sunk below $10, and it was forced to cut its dividend. GM is not faring much better. Perhaps it's time to institute rational design and fuel efficiency as the guiding principles for our auto manufacturers. Who knows? People might again start buying American cars.

Our current automotive buying habits are solely an American phenomenon, fostering resentment in the rest of the world. Are we so insecure as to allow some narrow, uninformed sense of "freedom of choice" to threaten the global environment and the opportunity for international accord?

Eventually we will all have to recognize the truth of a world of limited resources, a world that simply cannot support 4,000-lb. vehicles used to deliver a single human to his or her destination. We will have to recognize, as well, that the excessive consumption of resources and material in the richest country in the world leads inevitably to poverty and desperation among the world's poor. We will, all of us, have to recognize that this unbridled consumption of resources is tied directly to the geopolitics underlying the current rush to war.

Perhaps when Mr. Soriano's pride recovers, he can attempt to elucidate his thoughts in a more reasoned manner. As members of a community that purports to be the source of a new generation of leaders, we should expect no less, from Mr. Soriano or from ourselves.