The Scapegoat Utility Vehicle

Reprinted with permission from Foundation for Economic Education,

First sin, then treason, and finally, reckless idiocy.

For owners of sports utility vehicles (SUVs), that pretty much sums up the last holiday season. They went into Thanksgiving under fire from the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign. Then the New Year started with Arianna Huffington’s charge that they were aiding Osama bin Laden. To top it off, in late January the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) declared that SUVs were simply too deadly for his children.


The media, of course, ate it up. In part, that was a healthy sign that there was nothing really important to report. But beyond their amusement value, these campaigns had some very real objectives: raising the federal government’s fuel-economy standards, encouraging congressional legislation, and sticking some new voodoo pins into the demonized doll of automobility.

Attacks on the SUV are nothing new. Prior to last fall, environmentalist organizations regularly decried their gas-guzzling nature and their contribution to the alleged threat of global warming. Self-proclaimed consumer-safety groups claimed they were dangerous to those who rode in them and to those who rode near them, citing rollovers and the Firestone-tire fiasco. Photos of subcompacts demolished by intact SUVs became a news favorite, despite the relative rarity of such occurrences. In September a book by New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher, High and Mighty, labeled them “the world’s most dangerous vehicles.” But the attacks seemed to change in November, when the “What Would Jesus Drive?” (WWJD) campaign hit the big time. The Evangelical Environmental Network brought a convoy of electric hybrid cars to Detroit, where its spokesmen met with top Ford and GM executives to urge increased production of more fuel efficient vehicles. The Network claimed that “the Risen Lord Jesus is concerned about the kinds of cars we drive because they affect his people and his creation.” The industry responded that it preferred to leave its purchasing decisions to consumers. That, apparently, was not a satisfactory answer. The WWJD event was widely covered, though its most noteworthy impact was to stimulate jokes.