The National Catholic Review

What do you call a politician who supports incentives to buy and drive fuel-efficient vehicles, even if they happen to be made in Japan? One can easily imagine Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California curling his lips and referring to such a goody-goody colleague as, well, a girlie man. Schwarzenegger, it will come as no surprise, prefers the gas-guzzling behemoths known as Hummers, which are based on an armor-clad vehicle designed to carry soldiers into battle.

But as it happens, the politician who is trying to encourage fuel efficiency is, in fact, manly man Arnold Schwarzenegger. Can it be? Is it possible that with the good governor’s blessing, automobile buyers may now consider little things like fuel efficiency and not be dismissed as politically correct, cheese-eating, French-speaking liberals?

Apparently it is. With the governor’s support, the California legislature recently passed a bill that would allow owners of hybrid automobiles to use the state’s car pool lanes, even if they are driving alone. California has more than 1,000 miles of car pool lanes, and plans to add another 1,000 in the near future. For many motorists, access to those fast-moving lanes is something just short of a dream come true.

So when California’s legislators and its governor decided to bestow car pool lane privileges on the owners of hybrid vehicles, it was a sure sign that the power brokers in Sacramento want to encourage the use of these cleaner, greener people-moving machines.

Guess which American city despises California’s good intentions? That’s rightDetroit, the home of the American automobile industry, or what’s left of it. Once the Japanese and other foreign competitors began providing consumers with alternatives to such memorable products as the Pinto, the Gremlin and the Falcon in the 1970’s, Detroit just hasn’t been the same.

American car companies see the California bill as a threat because, wouldn’t you know, the top makers of hybrid vehicles are, yes, Toyota and Honda. The California bill specifies that hybrids, which run on gasoline and electricity generated by a battery, must get at least 45 miles per gallon to gain coveted access to the car pool lanes. Only Toyota and Honda make such vehicles.

The Ford Motor Company protested that its new hybrid, a sport utility vehicle that will get 31 miles per gallon, will be excluded, and that the bill therefore favors Japanese cars at the expense of American-made hybrids. The problem, of course, is obvious: Ford is building an S.U.V., and the Japanese companies are building cars. If Ford wants to compete with the Toyota Prius or the Honda Civic Hybrid (which I’ve driven and intend to make my next car), then it should build a car and not another S.U.V.

The California bill will require permission from the federal Department of Transportation, and it would be sound fiscal policy not to bet the mortgage that such permission will be granted, especially if the Bush administration and its oilmen remain in place. Four years into this administration, and a quarter-century since the last gas crisis, Washington has just about given up on the idea of fuel efficiency. The proliferation of S.U.V.’s that get a dozen miles to a gallon demonstrates that Americans simply do not care about the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

You’d have thought that drivers of a certain age would remember with some bitterness the era of odd and even days for gas purchases and long lines at the pump. You’d think even the young would understand that our dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf places us in an untenable position, and that the more oil we consume, the more we are liable to be held hostage by oil-producing regimes. Surely we have not forgotten who has attacked us, and whence they came.

As I write this, a radio announcer is telling me that the cost of a barrel of oil has hit $50 and price hikes at the pump are inevitable. Equally inevitable, as the presidential election nears its climax, will be the screams of rage from the S.U.V.-buying public as they discover the cost of their indulgence.

Perhaps the public outcry, however unjustifieddo we as a nation really have a right to complain about high gasoline prices if half our vehicles are S.U.V.’s?will prompt an actual debate over energy policy. Thus far, I’ve not heard much, if anything, from the two candidates about how they would protect our national security by reducing our dependence on oil.

Addressing that issue, however, requires the telling of unpleasant truths. It means telling us that we have been on an immoral binge over the last dozen years, a binge that was aided and abetted by American car makers and members of Congress who exempted S.U.V.’s from fuel efficiency standards.

Telling the truth about the real price of oil would require a candidate to bring up unpleasant topics like this nation’s dubious relationship with Saudi Arabia, homehave we forgotten?to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers.

The buyers of Explorers, Navigators, Suburbans and Hummers need to be reminded that they cannot evade responsibility for their actions. Their choices have consequences: they make us more dependent on a politically unstable and decidedly unfriendly part of the world; they contribute to pollution; and they are a danger to drivers who have made, yes, more intelligent decisions.

Why do I think neither candidate will say anything remotely like this? Then again, if they do, at least they don’t have to worry about a certain governor calling them girlie men.

Terry Golway is a writer for The New York Observer.

Comments

Matthew Toohill | 11/16/2004 - 5:08pm
I feel that not only do I have a right to complain about the price of Gas that I fill my gass guzzeling SUV with, but I have a right to complain about the cost of my SUV, along with the cost of my pants, shirts, and shoes. I have that right because I don't have a say in what I drive. I am only six ft. four in. and weigh 190 lbs. I have for the fist 9 years of my driving life driven chevy cavileers and a ford tempo. They have the leg and head room of a can of sardines. The same goes for those Honda and Toyota's. It's not fair that I should have to buy an SUV, but they are the only vehicles made with a person slightly taller than average in mind. I really feel discriminated against by the fact that I can't buy a cheaper car because they make them for people between five foot two and six feet tall. Five foot two is less than average, yet the shorter people are catered to, the taller people aren't. So therefor, I should't even be put in the category of SUV yuppies who don't care how much gas they burn.

Pat Jeansonne, M.D. | 2/19/2007 - 6:12pm
Could we for a moment slow down on the constant bashing of S.U.V. drivers (10/18)? No doubt some S.U.V. drivers seek status or some other unworthy goal, but consider other reasons why people drive S.U.V.’s despite their miserable gas mileage.

Our chief family recreation involves a boat, 26 feet long. Our options for our favorite use, scuba diving, involve getting the boat out a few miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Though we live on a river, the route to the gulf is many miles long (through all the east-west diameter of Tampa Bay), and the mileage of the boat is many times poorer than that of our S.U.V. So we generally tow the boat to a ramp closer to open water. The vehicle we use to do this has to have a certain towing and braking capacity to be safe. It has to be large enough to do the job well. A minivan or small pickup or sedan cannot safely tow such a vessel.

Now five years ago, we had a minivan and a small pickup for the parents to drive, a Honda for the teen and an aging full-size van that mostly sat in the yard, awaiting service in towing the boat. When the lease on the mini came almost due, we agonized over whether to keep the van for towing and get a “practical” car, or whether to get a new towing vehicle that would be driven every day, realizing the fuel implications of the latter choice. The van made up our minds for us; it burned up totally on what became its last towing mission.

So now one of us drives the S.U.V. to work every day, as purchasing two new vehicles made no sense. So, yes, you see me driving alone to work in my behemoth, and you fuss about the gas I am guzzling. But remember the positive attributes of this vehicle. Almost every boat trip that includes towing with our S.U.V. involves two or more families, multiple folks spreading out the cost of that gas. In addition, we have to get to work and school and the grocery store, etc. That one vehicle makes the most trips, as it fits mom, dad, grandma, kids, scuba gear, groceries and so forth, and it makes our recreational trips possible.

So please stop making blanket statements about us greedy S.U.V. drivers. There are purposes for such vehicles beyond status and power and “bigness.” We try to plan our trips to minimize excess back-and-forth random driving. Surely we are not the only people to have a need for an S.U.V., nor the only ones to try to use it in ways that guzzle the least.

As an aside, may I say that receiving America is one of the highlights of my week, and I enjoy Mr. Golway’s column, even when I disagree!

Edgar Sullivan | 2/19/2007 - 6:11pm
Terry Golway’s recent article “Immoral Bingeing” (10/18) is judgmental and no doubt offensive to many hardworking Americans. He extols Japanese manufacturers, Toyota and Honda, for producing fuel-efficient hybrids and impugns their domestic competitors for a proliferation of S.U.V.’s. Larger vehicles are safer. Is it immoral to purchase a safer and more comfortable vehicle for your family? My wife is a physician who uses a Chevy Trail Blazer to go to hospitals in inclement weather when vehicles like the Toyota Prism, which Mr. Golway extols, would be stranded.

I have worked for General Motors for more than 30 years and can attest to my colleagues’ deep concern for the environment. Our corporation is a leader in fuel cell technology, a very promising antidote to our nation’s dependence on foreign oil and to the environmental issues associated with the internal combustion engine. G.M. will also soon have hybrids available for sale. Mr. Golway, before leveling his criticism at “Detroit,” should take account of the uneven playing field on which we, the American manufacturers, compete. Japanese producers enjoy a protected home market, and the vehicles they produce in the United States are not saddled with substantial “legacy” costs (health insurance and pensions) that the domestic producers incur. G.M., for example, spends an average of $1,400 on health care benefits for every vehicle it produces in the United States, whereas its Japanese competitors spend about $200 per vehicle.

While I respect Mr. Golway’s right to purchase any vehicle he pleases, I resent his insinuation that those of us who opt for the safety and comfort of an S.U.V. are less moral. G.M. and its Detroit counterparts can succeed only by offering the products that consumers prefer. Speaking on behalf of my 350,000 fellow workers, G.M.’s 450,000 retirees and the 1.1 million individuals who depend on our continuing success for their health care benefits, I can assert that we will go the extra mile to achieve continuing success in the marketplace.

Robert W. Dundon, S.J. | 2/19/2007 - 6:09pm
Thanks for Terry Golway’s column on our immoral gasoline binge (10/18). The punch will soon be taken away by sharp increases in crude oil prices. The petroleum geologists have been telling us for six or seven years that world supplies will peak in the first decade of the 21st century, but few Americans are listening. The binge is going to prove too expensive to continue after “Hubbert’s peak” comes in world oil production. Who knows what the United States will suffer during our hangover?

Matthew Toohill | 11/16/2004 - 5:08pm
I feel that not only do I have a right to complain about the price of Gas that I fill my gass guzzeling SUV with, but I have a right to complain about the cost of my SUV, along with the cost of my pants, shirts, and shoes. I have that right because I don't have a say in what I drive. I am only six ft. four in. and weigh 190 lbs. I have for the fist 9 years of my driving life driven chevy cavileers and a ford tempo. They have the leg and head room of a can of sardines. The same goes for those Honda and Toyota's. It's not fair that I should have to buy an SUV, but they are the only vehicles made with a person slightly taller than average in mind. I really feel discriminated against by the fact that I can't buy a cheaper car because they make them for people between five foot two and six feet tall. Five foot two is less than average, yet the shorter people are catered to, the taller people aren't. So therefor, I should't even be put in the category of SUV yuppies who don't care how much gas they burn.

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