TCS Daily

Don't Tread on Me

By Craig Winneker - November 16, 2004 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- Europeans have become adept at disdaining America even as they consume its products unashamedly. From Moroccan toughs sporting New York Yankees caps and Tommy Hilfiger red-white-and-blue to French teenagers lining up out the door at McDonald's, their love affair with America Inc. continues. Never mind that many of them see George W. Bush as the world's Public Enemy Number One and the people who voted for him as Bible-thumping rubes.

It doesn't come as much of a surprise, then, that the latest European status symbol is the sport-utility-vehicle. And it is even less of a surprise that the SUV - since it is considered to be an American invention (it isn't, though it may be an American obsession) - has come under attack on these shores. If Europeans are catching on to this latest craze, the elite reasoning goes, we have to find some way to stop it. The arguments against these large luxury vehicles are simply louder, greener versions of the ones heard over the last few years in the US: they are unnecessarily big, they pollute, their owners use them to go to yoga class and not to ford streams or scale cliffs.

I am a former SUV owner (and yes, I once piloted my trusty Ford Explorer Limited, oh-so-gingerly, across a stream) but I don't think I would drive another one. They are too expensive and too hard to park. More importantly, everyone has one now - and I'm a contrarian by nature. This doesn't even enter into the question of how expensive it is to quench their gasoline thirst when petrol now costs around $6 a gallon in Europe.

This is my personal choice, and I don't expect others to agree with me or to have to follow my example. People who want to drive big cars or trucks should be able to do so. People who want to buy things they don't need should be able to. However, many European politicians and activists do not share this view. Several of them in the continent's major cities, including Paris, London and Rome, have toyed with imposing severe restrictions on these vehicular behemoths. But, as the New York Times points out this week in an article on the growing popularity of SUVs here, none has so far enacted any. Perhaps that's because voters sense something that do-goodnik politicians do not. Or maybe they don't like being considered as nuisances simply because of the car they choose to drive. And not just nuisances. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, recently called people who drive SUVs "complete idiots". He would know.

Some see a larger meaning in the success of the SUV. "They're status markers because they're big and expensive and profligate with the earth's resources," Steven Stradling, a professor of transport psychology (!) at Napier University in Edinburgh, told the NYT. "They are a symbol of power without responsibility, and that's what we feel about you guys right now." So this is what it's come down to: take out frustration with America by cracking down on European citizens who want to choose a particular vehicle for whatever reasons of their own. But European politicians should be careful using this reasoning, unless they want to admit that more and more drivers are suddenly becoming more enamored of US foreign policy. Then they might have to start clamping down on Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirts.

As usual, the market will win out in the end. Auto companies make SUVs because people want to buy them - and so there are bound to be more of them on European roads in the near future. I suspect people who want them will even be willing to pay whatever penalties politicians may impose on them in the form of higher fees, etc. They're already willing to pay more for fuel, and probably for parking tickets. What the anti-SUV forces don't seem to understand is that if there is a market for smaller, safer, more eco-friendly SUVs - and I suspect that there is - the auto companies will invest in the new technology and meet the demand.

Even a complete idiot can understand that.


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