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In light of gas crisis, fuel-guzzling SUVs should stay off road

March 18, 2003

By Hannah Lodwick

Spring break has ended, and reality hits like a Mack truck ... or should I say a Ford Excursion. The shock of morning classes, sunburns and sleep deprivation can put a depressing spin on an otherwise good day. Besides all that, at the end of spring break I'm usually left wondering where all my money went. This year, though, I have an idea as to how it disappeared. Thanks to recent conflicts with certain oil-rich nations, a large chunk of my moolah got sucked through the engine of my car.

Ironically, my Acura gets good gas mileage compared to the thousands of sport utility vehicles that went to South Padre Island or Gulf Shores, and especially compared to the chrome-plated motor coach towing a 6,400-pound Hummer towing a four-wheeler I saw on Valley Mills Drive Sunday. I don't even want to know what kind of gas mileage those guys get. With that in mind, I'd like to propose a surefire way to save money next spring -- stop driving SUVs. I know this idea may not go over well in Texas, but it has several benefits.

Besides obvious savings in gas consumption, cars and small trucks prove safer in rollovers than SUVs. Top auto safety regulators recently criticized SUV makers, saying that because of their size and weight, SUVs inflict more harm on occupants in collisions than cars do. In February, Reuters reported that the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said SUV rollover fatalities occur three times more often than in cars. SUVs do well in front and side crashes, and auto makers staunchly defend their safety before Senate lawmakers, but Joan Claybrook, the former director of the Federal Auto Safety Agency, told Reuters that manufacturers barely have dodged regulation.

'The industry has known for years about these dangers and has bobbed and weaved to avoid regulation,' Claybrook said. 'The government has also dropped the ball.'

Another safety aspect deals with air pollution. The American Automobile Manufacturers Association reports that sport utility vehicles emit 30 percent more carbon monoxide and 75 percent more nitrogen oxides than cars.

The car industry fights SUV regulation in large part because of incredibly high profit margins. According to 'The Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) Page' Web site, automakers profit $10,000-20,000 on each SUV they sell. While utility vehicles constitute 15 percent of total vehicle sales, they provide 60 percent of annual profits.

The expenses don't stop after the sale. It costs more to repair, fuel and insure utility vehicles than cars. The lack of crash requirements on SUVs allows their bumpers to crumble under a relatively low impact, so after a crash an SUV needs more repair than a car, which does have impact regulations.

The pressing issue with SUVs, of course, involves fuel efficiency. At 19 feet long and 8,500 pounds, the Ford Excursion won't even fit in most garages. And its gas mileage of roughly 12 miles per gallon leaves little room for excuse. The SUV Info Link reported that a Harper's Magazine writer took the Excursion for a test drive and found that in the city, this behemoth of vehicles got as low as 3.7 miles per gallon.

Time reported March 5 that the national average gasoline price per gallon had risen to $1.66, only five cents less than the highest rates ever. And with impending war in Iraq, prices may continue to increase.

'Gas will probably go to $3, and I applaud it,' Jim Schupp, a retired computer company executive told Time. 'I'd like to see all gas guzzlers off the road.'

For those who can rationalize driving a gas guzzler, Time published some hints on conserving gas and saving money. The best way to save money on gas is also the most obvious: don't drive unless you have to. Walking to class saves time and money -- you don't have to buy a parking sticker or arrive 15 minutes early to find a space.

Other admonitions from AAA include avoiding 'jackrabbit starts' and revving your engine. Sudden acceleration uses roughly twice as much gas as a normal start.

In addition, experts recommend keeping engine warm-up times to a minimum, no more than about a minute. Manual transmissions and properly adjusted brakes also reduce fuel consumption, but the stick shift idea works best when drivers know how to drive well. Driving fast in a low gear wastes gas.

SUVs present a paradox to consumers. Newsweek reported that only 5 percent of all SUV drivers take them off-road, and although commercials portray utility vehicles as helping us get back to nature, they actually contribute to environmental destruction. We shouldn't blame SUV drivers for the havoc they cause, but you have a responsibility to make educated choices about what you drive.