The Tanks of August Wipe Out Common Sense

WELLFLEET, Mass.-According to informed sources, i.e., the guy who sells clams down the road, this town is the official summer home of some 59.8 percent of Manhattan’s shrinks. That satisfied my curiosity: I had inquired, in cruder language than I would have liked, about the owners of all the Sherman tanks bearing New York license plates and traveling with Patton-like speed along Cape Cod’s Route 6 in the waning days of August. I know little about the business of head shrinkage and prefer to keep it that way, but I am fairly certain it does not require its practitioners to travel through rutted country roads in pursuit of new patients.

So if the Manhattan shrinks with the Sherman tanks do not need to drive 5,000-pound vehicles that look like they could have made quick work of Rommel’s beach defenses in Normandy, then why do they do so? Could it be that they actually enjoy inspiring terror in other motorists who were led to believe, in more innocent times, that the measure of an auto consumer was his/her commitment to better gas mileage? Not so long ago, the ownership of a motor vehicle with camel-like properties was considered an exercise in old-fashioned patriotism, even if said vehicle was of foreign extraction. Back when the enemy of American self-determination was a cadre of Arab sheiks who met every six months ago to raise the price of oil, why, baby boomers with their newly minted driver’s licenses demanded something other than the tailfinned gas-guzzlers Detroit was turning out. That was then, and this is now: the Roaring Nineties, when the baby boomers hit their peak earning years and disposed with all that chatter about saving the earth and American independence through better gas mileage.

For most people, the three letters that define this greatest of all bull markets are I, P and O. For those of us stuck in the car-owning mentality of the Nixon and Carter administrations, the three letters that sum up everything that is deplorable, smug and self-absorbed about the 1990′s are S, U and V.

Americans bought about 7.5 million of these awful killers last year, adding to the tens of millions already on the road. Obviously, you don’t have to be a Manhattan shrink to need your head examined: Ownership of a sport utility vehicle is open to all soft-brained seekers of status and consumers of image. Worse, within a few years, those millions of top-heavy trucks will start to fill up the used-car lots, where 16-year-olds will snap them up and invite their pals to join them in joy rides on a road near you. Lots of luck, friends. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently found that in 1996, 2,000 people whose conventional cars collided with S.U.V.’s died as a direct result of the trucks’ antipersonnel design, particularly the high clearance in the front and the stiff frames.

Many conservatives love S.U.V.’s because they make lots of money for car companies, and what, after all, could possibly be wrong with that? Isn’t that the only measure of success that matters in the 1990′s? Only a Hillary-loving socialist could possibly object to greater profits. And only an out-of-touch redistributionist would bring up such concerns as the safety of others. After all, didn’t Margaret Thatcher instruct us that there is no such thing as society? Why should an S.U.V. owner care about the safety of those not wealthy enough to own a private tank of their own?

The conversation in at least one short-term house share here in Wellfleet has turned on what military planners might call an anti-S.U.V. defense system. How, we wondered, can we defend our families from these odious machines and their youth-seeking boomer owners who betrayed their alleged values-environmental awareness, communitarian spirit, etc.-for one last wild ride before the A.A.R.P. card arrives in the mail? Somebody mentioned Volvos, but research shows that the average S.U.V. can turn even this sturdy Scandinavian into road kill. Besides, they cost more than some S.U.V.’s.

Inevitably, we resigned ourselves to the inevitable purchase of a minivan, which at least offers some protection from marauding S.U.V. owners and, in a few years, their children. In their mania for profits, the auto industry is turning American motorists away from the subcompacts that are the rule in Europe and elsewhere, making us ever more vulnerable for the next oil crisis.

Somebody wondered why Washington hasn’t had the guts to impose some form of luxury taxes on these lethal environmental disasters, or why that famously green Presidential candidate, Al Gore, hasn’t had much to say about the perils of this collective exercise in mindless consumerism. A writer in The Boston Globe suggested that S.U.V. owners be required to take extra training and be issued special licenses.

Well, perhaps we’ll get to it once we solve our gun problem.