Sunday, 17 August 2014

S.U.Vs - Rage against the Machine!

I’ve always lived in the central fringe of whichever city I’m in. I like having access to libraries, theatres, cinemas, the universities, the parks and green spaces. Having had the great good fortune of living through decades of peace, I have been able to enjoy all the cultural benefits that city living offers.
However during my lifetime, a different kind of war – more invisible, albeit just as violent as traditional war - has emerged through the flimsy barricades of peace. A war that was heralded in 1962 by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and has been rampaging against the natural world we call the environment, virtually unchecked to this day.

The big guns of applied science driven by an aggressive global capitalism have ploughed through our urban and rural landscapes as well as our stomachs, lungs, hearts and minds. Its major artillery is an irrational belief system based on unlicensed growth and the fool notion that mankind (I use this term advisedly) is a kind of supreme unique being amongst the immensity of life lived through the revolving eons on planet Earth. Lords of the universe syndrome we might call it. Others might call it ‘shitting in one’s own nest”.
I came to Auckland in 1969 when New Zealand was on the cusp of great change. Just like me, the city’s landscape has changed a lot. Ponsonby, Freemans Bay, Kingsland, used to be predominantly working class, but then incomes were more equal so rich and poor co-existed in the same suburbs.
Once considered a slum and planned to be demolished
Pacific and Maori people lived side-by-side with Pakeha families. Children walked to school, house prices were affordable for families who saved and money wasn’t worshipped as an almighty god.
During the 1980s the great gentrification began. We called them the Yuppies - consumers with disposable money and social climbing pretensions. They began to move in and displaced the older and poorer inhabitants. They began their redecorating, changing the face of these areas. It’s lovely to have the houses done up and cared for, as so many of them are heritage, and like our trees and green spaces should be respected and honoured. But house prices have reached insane prices that only rich white folks (or wealthy immigrants) can afford. Peering into the future’s crystal ball makes me shudder. My neighbourhood’s once beautiful variegated, multi-cultural mix has been overridden by those who obviously value consumerism and an individualistic conservatism. They paint their houses anodyne beige or white with grey roofs. And surprise, surprise they all drive those damn SUVs.
The streets are narrow and hilly. They live in the city. Why do they buy a huge ‘jeep’ designed to be used on rough surfaces, to drive round the neighbourhood? One driver to each oversize machine congests every school’s surrounding streets, as the children are dropped off and picked up. Why don’t they walk their children to school?  Why not use hybrid or small cars, bikes or even – heaven forbid – public transport? What is it about living in balance with other humans and their/our environment that they don’t understand?

In the war against planetary health, SUVs are the armoured tanks of the conquering army.
In the 1980’s SUVs made up one in 50 new car purchases – now they account for one in three new cars. This is a massive change in our car fleet. The latest news is that over the last 18 months new car sales are ever-increasing. The number of vehicles sold during July was the highest in 29 years and the strongest selling segment of all vehicles sold was the sale of Sports Utility Vehicles.

The reasons for driving SUVs are overwhelmingly irrational and impractical. I would love to see statistics that show how many of these inner-city Auckland road-hogs actually drive on gravel roads or in wintry conditions of snow and ice, where a four wheel drive actually would bring a safety advantage.
For at least 2 decades SUVs were notorious for their centre of gravity that made the vehicles more prone to rollover accidents than lower vehicles, especially if the SUV left the road or in emergency manoeuvres. I believe the bodies of SUVs have recently become more aerodynamic, so they don’t have this same rollover factor to the marked extent they had previously. However their top-heaviness is ludicrously ugly and tall cars do not handle well. Their sheer size and weight keeps their fuel economy poor. Maintenance of course is highly expensive.
People aren’t buying the gas guzzlers because they are fuel-efficient – presumably those that purchase have money to burn and don’t care enough about the effects they might have on their shared environment.
The pollution produced by light trucks, SUVs and minivans is only half a percent higher than that produced by conventional cars, based on a recent study. However researchers say that this tiny difference becomes enormous when considering the number of light trucks moving along the nation's highways – and of course Auckland city is infamous for its dirty air. Motor vehicles are the single greatest contributor to urban air pollution in Auckland, being responsible for between 50 to 80% of all emissions. I can’t find statistics to show just what percentage of these emissions would be from SUVs, but given the number being driven in my neighbourhood – it’s too high!

Yes it’s an ‘all about me’ culture. Most certainly other road users don’t feature in the SUV owner’s mind. Larger vehicles can create visibility problems for other drivers by obscuring their view of traffic lights, signs, and other vehicles on the road, plus the road itself. I can vouch that the lack of visibility when driving behind these machines leads to road rage. Depending on design, drivers of some larger vehicles may themselves suffer from poor visibility to the side and the rear. Poor rearward vision has led to many "backover deaths" where vehicles have run over small children when backing out of driveways. The problem of backover deaths has become so widespread that reversing cameras are being installed on some vehicles to improve rearward vision.
Their wider bodies mean SUVs occupy a greater percentage of the road lanes, leaving less room for error and for other road users, including cyclists. This is particularly noticeable on the narrow roads found in dense urban areas such as Auckland’s central fringe. Parking in Auckland becomes another major factor that doesn’t seem to deter the SUV buyer.

If reason plays no part in purchasing a SUV, I would suggest these vehicles are bought in ever-increasing numbers is because driving something so big and expensive, emotionally boosts a sense of status and power. SUV owners are actually buying an elitist dream that they can ride high in style and comfort like aristocrats of the road. And never mind the plebs who can’t afford or don’t want the damn dream. “Let them eat cake”.
How many actually travel to Antarctica in their dream machines?
Delusions of grandeur are pumped up and exploited by the SUV manufacturers and marketers who profit from the feelings of strength and security they offer to the SUV fools. TV commercials show the product being driven through wilderness areas, even though ridiculously few SUVs are ever driven off road.
Based on a sedan, but styled to look rugged, they are an obvious symbol of the culture of belligerence we have embraced over the last 30 years as aggressive capitalism has overwhelmed our collective intelligence.
Another myth that feeds the people who spend inanely high amounts of money on these pretend off-road vehicles that never go off road, is the propaganda that real Kiwi men (and by extension women) are into sports and outdoors activities. Apparently New Zealanders are all without exception rugby-loving, adventure-sports and sea-faring yachties who climb mountains before breakfast. According to wall-to-wall media, male sports define our nationhood.

This image that heads Toyota’s Hilux website is part of a media and advertising propaganda machine that allows SUV drivers to fancy themselves as part of this machismo stereotype. (Toyoto Hilux was the recent second highest seller with 13% of the market share of all new cars. Ford Ranger was the monthly top selling commercial model for July with 17%.)

The latest accident stats show if you crash your large SUV there’s a 2.7% chance you will be killed or hospitalised. If you’re driving a medium-sized car, those odds rise to 3.6%. So SUVs do make you ever so slightly safer.
The trouble is that inside the SUV, things feel different. SUV drivers have a perception of safety because they are higher and look down on – ie dominate other road users. In essence, they are driving a small truck. The height and weight of their vehicle leads to a feeling they are inside a defensive capsule and don’t have to take basic driving precautions.
They may have slightly better crashworthiness ratings, but SUVs score higher for aggression towards other road users (vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians).
So if you’re in a crash a SUV makes you 0.9% less likely to be killed or hospitalised, but makes everyone else 2.1% more likely to end up in the morgue.
Our publically-funded health-care system spreads the costs of hospital care across all taxpayers. Non-SUV owners are paying for the costs of SUV drivers’ behaviour.
Economist Michele White has called this effect “the arms’ race on American roads.”
Then there’s insurance costs; the overall cost of these pumped up station wagons is thrust upon all of us, because insurance rates are higher due to SUVs generating more expensive repairs to themselves and the cars they hit, as well as injuries from over rollover accidents.
The self-centred, anti-social idiots who are driving these small trucks around our narrow city streets are dodging the real costs of air pollution, health-care and insurance rates, while the rest of us are carrying their economic and social cost.

Folks I implore you, rage and fight against the machine!
Do not go gentle into that dark night of passivity and retail therapy
‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ (apologies to Dylan Thomas)

Resist the myths, bust the trends, refrain from feeding the corporate coffers.
Clean air and uncongested roads, and are worth struggling for.
In any war, resistance must be on many fronts. Consciousness raising and guerrilla action are always positive strategies. Think global, and act local.  These French people have the right idea….

Download these kiwi-made stickers and do with them what you will.

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