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Mon, Feb 17, 2003 - Page 12 News List

SUVs get a bad rap in the US for being politically incorrect


They've been pilloried in the media, set fire to and criticized by a top US road traffic safety official.

It's been open season on America's favorite form of transport -- the sport-utility vehicle. Now, two cash-strapped US states are about to ax them from official state fleets.

In Massachusetts, Republican governor Mitt Romney is considering ditching the 428 SUVs in the state fleet in favor of something a little more economical and environmentally friendly.

The governor, who is grappling with a state deficit of US$650 million this fiscal year, doesn't see why "officials can't use a regular sedan," Romney's spokeswoman Jodi Charles said Thursday.

Next door in Connecticut, officials are also looking to reduce the state's fleet of 200 gas-guzzlers because of budget problems.

"It doesn't seem like there's a consumer backlash yet, but it's encouraging to see that decision-makers are getting the message," said Gary Skulnik, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club together with other green groups have been some of the most outspoken critics of the vehicles because, it says, their tailpipe emissions contribute to pollution and the wider problem of global warming.

It's planning to launch a publicity broadside against the most steroidal of SUVs -- General Motors Corp's Hummer H2 (which gets about 16 kilometers to the gallon around town) -- in the near future.

"It's an abomination. It has no place on the road," Skulnik said.

There may be no sign of a grass-roots revolt against SUVs yet -- sport utilities and pick-up trucks outsold passenger cars in 2001 and last year in the US market -- but the chorus of disapproval has definitely been getting louder.

Jeff Runge, chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, made headlines when he said SUVs posed an "astounding" threat to drivers.

Citing NHTSA figures which show that an SUV occupant is three times as likely to die in a rollover as an occupant of a passenger car, Runge expressed amazement at the popularity of the vehicles, which some consumer groups say are more likely to roll because of their higher center of gravity.

Also last month, a series of provocative ads suggesting owners of gas-thirsty SUVs indirectly support terrorists from oil-rich Middle East countries began airing on US television.

"What is your SUV doing to our national security?" the Detroit Project, an ad-hoc group of Los Angeles-based movers and shakers led by the national newspaper columnist Arianna Huffington, asks in one ad. "Tell Detroit their gas-guzzlers help terrorists buy guns."

The behemoths of the road have also drawn the ire of the environmental and anti-war activists. The eco-warriors of the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) torched several SUVs in a Pennsylvania dealership on New Year's Day, while more recently the words "No blood for oil" were found spray-painted on SUVs in Newton, Massachusetts, linking the vehicles with the potential US attack on Iraq.

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