Why We Love Our SUVs

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(Host) Why do we Americans love our SUVs? The French, and economist Thorstein Veblen, may have some answers, says commentator Allen Gilbert.

(Gilbert) You have to hand it to the French. Sometimes they can be brutally honest and direct – even when the joke’s on them. A few weeks ago NPR ran a story on the increasing number of SUVs abroad. Europe hasn’t seen the growth in this style of vehicle that we have here in the U.S. But now, apparently, Europeans are catching up. The French especially seem to favor SUVs.

But what most caught my attention in the NPR story was one French driver’s explanation of why he bought an SUV. “It makes me feel powerful,” he said candidly. “People get out of the way.”

From a driving standpoint, SUVs make little sense. Many are top-heavy, so they handle poorly and are prone to roll-overs. Maneuvering in tight spots is impossible. SUVs guzzle fuel. Tires are expensive; insurance premiums are high, if for no other reason than SUVs’ high sticker prices.

Health experts tell us that we Americans have grown bigger and heavier. So maybe some of us do need larger vehicles to accommodate our larger bodies. And maybe some of us do live on muddy or snowy back roads that require heavy-duty, high-clearance vehicles to get the whole family off to work and school on the toughest weather days.

But these situations don’t apply to everyone. I suspect that the vast majority of us have chosen SUVs for other reasons – as the straightforward Frenchman suggested. We ‘re driven by an irrational desire to make other people get out of the way, perhaps because we feel that other people are trying to make us get out of the way. It’s a curious sort of automotive Darwinism.

The theories of the American economist Thorstein Veblen may apply here, too. More than 100 years ago, Veblen theorized that people seek status in shows of wealth – “conspicuous consumption,” he termed it in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

It was certainly a scene of conspicuous consumption that I came across on Route 4 in Fair Haven the other weekend. Crossing the Vermont line headed east was a Hummer limo, one of the largest personal passenger vehicles I’ve ever seen. The everyday Hummer itself fits Veblen’s notion of conspicuous consumption. A Hummer limo is an exponential version of conspicuous consumption.

We pay a high price for our consumptive habits. Increased demand for oil drives our national energy policy. We no longer look to conserve fuel, as we did during the energy crisis of the 1970s. Instead, we look for more sources of oil, or we work to control a larger share of the existing sources. These costs don’t necessarily show up at the pump. Instead, they’re reflected in numerous parts of the federal budget: tax breaks to energy companies or increased military spending to protect energy sources abroad.

There are hopeful signs things are changing. Interest in hybrid vehicles is high. Students at my local high school are pushing for bio-diesel buses. Maybe, one day, we’ll feel powerful because we practice conspicuous conservation.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist and teacher who writes about public policy issues. He is currently serving as Executive Director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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