January 6, 2003
I have been able to enjoy a lifestyle that has allowed me to abandon the
internal combustion engine and all of its trappings; to fly freely along
on the breeze as content as any anarchist could possibly be. My main mode
of transportation for the last five years has been a bicycle, a Trek, that
I won with the purchase of three one-dollar raffle tickets benefiting the
"Green Bicycle Program" (free bikes on the streets) in Arcata, California.
About a month ago I traded the ol' Trek in for something more efficient, an old Fuji ten-speed from the Arcata Bike Lending Library. The Fuji's faster and lighter and has a larger frame so, at 6'2" and 180 pounds, I'm much more comfortable perched on it. It's more skittish in tight corners and rolls downhill at frightening speed but I'm happy with it. The tires hold air, the brakes work, and it shifts okay.
From a bicycle or on foot, it's quite obvious that I belong to a very tiny minority of people who do not own or operate an iron horse, an iron cow, an iron pig, or an iron elephant. Just as obvious are the reasons why most people do.
(No, I'm not going to rant at you about your overly-consumptive behavior just because you drive a car. We live in a very mobile society that has evolved through the aspirations and exhaust of Big Oil and Big Auto, so your consent has been manufactured and you can't help your addiction to heavy metal and the oil that feeds it. You can't help but get withdrawal pains every time you think of walking or bike-riding. You're hooked.)
A couple weeks ago, I found myself hitchhiking back into town from the hinterlands and could not help but notice the incredible numbers of vans and "sport/utility vehicles" (SUVs) on the highway. So as not to exaggerate, I took careful note and found that at least 60% of the vehicles passing me by were SUVs and vans. As I stood there in the middle of Nowhere, California, it began to dawn on me why people drive these iron monsters and why they either scowled or pooh-poohed or totally ignored me.
Then I heard about Keith Bradsher's new book, "High and Mighty."
Bradsher writes, SUV buyers tend to be "insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors 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."
Most people who own SUVs think they are safer than smaller vehicles, that's what the car-makers who make the big profits would have us all believe. Did you know that the occupant death rate in SUVs is 6 percent higher than it is for cars and 8 percent higher in the largest SUVs? The main reason is that SUVs have a high risk of rollover; 62 percent of SUV deaths in 2000 occurred in rollover accidents. SUVs handle like hay wagons, so drivers can't respond quickly when the vehicle hits a stretch of uneven pavement or gets tipsy scraping a guardrail. Even a small bump in the road is enough to flip an SUV cornering at high speed and SUV roofs are not reinforced to protect the occupants against rollover.
Because of the SUVs' size most of their drivers overestimate their own security and drive unsafely, particularly in the kind of inclement weather that most of America experiences at this time of year. Bradsher reports that four-fifths of those killed in roll-overs were not belted in, even though 75 percent of the general driving population now buckles up regularly.
Not only are these behemoths dangerous to their occupants, SUVs have also made the roads more dangerous for everyone else. For every one life saved by driving an SUV, five others will be taken. Government researchers have found that a titanic like the four-ton Chevy Tahoe kills 122 people for every 1 million models on the road; by comparison, the Honda Accord only kills 21. Injuries in SUV-related accidents are likewise more severe.
And, at the rate it eats gas, could there be a more "All-American" vehicle?
We are BIG!
We are POWERFUL!
We are INVINCIBLE!
We are SAFE!
Or are we? Do 6,500 nuclear weapons make us safe? Does our dependence on petroleum make us safe? Does this culture of consumptive consumerism and capitalist colonialism insure our safety? Perhaps it is time to reassess what safety is and how we may attain it...for ourselves and everyone else.
Take a bike ride and think about it.
· · · · · ·
"High and Mighty," by Keith Bradsher; publisher: PublicAffairs; ISBN: 1586481231; 1st edition (September 17, 2002)
Arcata Community Library Bike Project
Michael W. Stowell is a local activist in Northern California.
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