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The XX Files

Baby, you can drive my tank

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I'm way above the fray up here in this SUV. I'm head and shoulders above you and your car and I like the view. You can't mess with me up here. You can't get at my children.

What, kids? You felt a bump? That was probably some little car down there, or maybe a pedestrian. The important thing is that we're OK. Go back to watching the DVD.

This scenario isn't real. Yet. But it could be. I want an SUV. I want to be safe. Last month I totaled my old Volvo in a scary accident, and at that moment everything changed.

It was late afternoon and the weather was fine --- dry roads, good visibility. I was driving along East Avenue and without warning a young driver in a Honda made an illegal left across traffic. I hit the brakes but it was too late. The awful metal smash. The explosion of airbags with their acrid smoke and debris. My son screaming in the backseat.

The car lurched onto the sidewalk and we got out fast. No one was hurt. My son was babbling, eyes unblinking. In his confusion and shock he tried to run back to the car. At eight years old he is a muscular, athletic child. I knelt on the sidewalk and held him. With adrenaline coursing through him, he nearly dragged me to the wreck.

We're fine but it could have been worse. That's why instead of buying a new car, I'm test-driving SUVs. Maybe even Hummers. I want 8,600 pounds of metal between my boys and the other cars. The world is full of young drivers, drunk drivers, idiot drivers. The next time someone does something stupid I don't want to even know. I want to be so encased in armor that it barely slows me down. Sure, I'll glance at the onboard video monitor and watch the wreckage bounce off the side panels, but that's it.

Predictably, everyone is shocked that I'm thinking along these lines. What about the greenhouse effect? they whine. What about the terrible mileage and increasing our reliance on oil-rich nations? Boo-hoo. They think of me as some kind of Lefty recycling tree-hugger. Which is, up to a point, true. But I'm a mother first.

My mother vows if I get a Hummer she'll write me out of her will. She seems to have forgotten what it feels like to want to protect your young children. My brother, an entry-level ecoterrorist, will surely deface any SUV I buy. Maybe he'll download a bumper sticker from idontcareaboutair.com and slap it on the door: "I'm changing the climate! Ask me how." Or, if it's a Hummer, he might post a photo of him giving it the finger on fuh2.com.

And even my husband, who presumably has a stake in our children's safety, is less than supportive, saying only, "we can't afford it." (For the record, however, this is his response to all my ideas.) By second-guessing me, my relatives are committing a kind of familial treason. I wonder if they even love the kids.

Of course I'm aware of the safety and environmental concerns. One day I test drove a smaller SUV, the kind with a car wheel-base, putting it through its paces in an icy parking lot. On a couple of sharp turns I felt that pull, that top-heavy sway signaling the potential for a rollover, even on this smaller vehicle.

In larger SUVs, that top-heavy pull is even stronger. And yet, even though I know better, it doesfeel safe up there. A couple of years ago, in a New Yorker article about SUVs by Malcolm Gladwell, an industry expert pointed out that this paradox is common. On an intellectual level people know taller vehicles have a greater chance of a rollover, but on what he calls the "reptilian level," consumers think "if I am bigger and taller I'm safer."

The article also shows how SUVs take much longer to stop and are difficult to steer even at moderate speeds, whereas sporty little cars with their better handling can avoid potential collisions at speeds upwards of 50 miles an hour. It makes the case that a smaller car, which could be crushed by an SUV, might nonetheless be a safer vehicle because of its maneuverability. Still, though, if I'm going to hit something --- God forbid --- I'd rather be in a tank.

As for SUV pollution, you can't prove they're causing the greenhouse effect. Sure, SUVs, like cars, emit CO2. Ever heard of it? It's what humans exhale. Plus, even if they do contribute to global warming, it won't really make a difference here in Rochester. As a spokesman for SUV Owners of America said when arguing against stricter emission laws in California: "Global warming is just that --- global. It's not local. So regardless of whether this law results in reduced CO2 emissions, it will have no beneficial effect in California or elsewhere." I'm with him. One SUV will do a world of good for my family and have a negligible effect on the planet.

As a mother, isn't my responsibility to my own kids? This is evolution in its finest hour --- a crucial maternal gene has been selected for and fine-tuned over millions of generations of humans to bring us to this moment in history. The moment when I look at my precious children on the one hand and at all the dimwits, crackfiends, and inexperienced drivers on the other. The maternal gene kicks in and I buy an SUV. It's simple. It's survival of the fittest.

Think of it this way: I'm not destroying the planet, I'm saving the species. And when my older son turns 16 I will turn the keys over to him. I'll feel much safer with my teenage son cruising around in a four-ton vehicle. Won't you?

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