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Standing up for SUV owners

Sat., Jan. 19, 2008

BOISE – Barry McCahill is used to getting hate mail.

The Eagle, Idaho, resident is president of SUV Owners of America, whose members have been attacked as being selfish environmental marauders who choose gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles over fuel-efficient cars.

The 60-year-old, a former longtime spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said most criticism comes from people living in urban areas.

“They have a perspective that SUVs are a plague upon the Earth,” said McCahill, who chafes at comments that SUVs are an unnecessary and wasteful extravagance in urban areas.

But really, the hate mail doesn’t bother him – not nearly as much as the firebombings of SUV dealerships by ecoterrorists around the country since 2001.

“I’ve never seen a vehicle so demagogued and attacked, its drivers criticized as inconsiderate,” McCahill said. “We’re just saying in America, people have a right to buy vehicles that meet their needs.”

McCahill has been in the midst of all this national debate since 2004, when he was asked to head the association.

He answers letters, writes a blog on the association’s Web site, does print and TV interviews, testifies before congressional committees and stays obsessively up-to-date on the latest automotive industry news.

And here’s the kicker: McCahill doesn’t own an SUV.

But he feels strongly about consumers having the right to choose. He drives a Harley and a big four-door pickup.

SUVs aren’t fuel-efficient, and some say their size makes them a menace on the highway. But some choose SUVs for that very reason, believing they are safer.

McCahill and others say SUV ownership and environmentalism aren’t mutually exclusive.

That may be truer than ever as automakers begin turning out SUV hybrids, such as the Ford Escape Hybrid and Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid. The 2008 Tahoe Hybrid is expected to average 20 to 22 mpg city and highway, while the 2008 Escape Hybrid is closer to 35 mpg.

This month, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed an executive order aimed at increasing fuel efficiency in state vehicles. That comes on the heels of legislation signed into law by President Bush in December that mandated a 40 percent improvement in fuel economy standards by 2020.

The bill requires the American auto industry fuel economy standard to be 35 mpg by then, 10 mpg more than it is now.

McCahill hopes hybrid SUVs will eventually resolve the issue.

“Everyone wants better fuel economy, but what are they willing to give up?” McCahill said. “Are you not going to have as many kids, not tow your boat?”

Sierra Club spokesman David Willett said the organization doesn’t want to tell people what kind of vehicle to drive.

“It’s definitely not productive to label all people. There are definitely better and worse choices about what vehicle they drive,” Willett said.

“It really comes down to thinking about your own personal carbon footprint and consumption and looking for ways to reduce that footprint.”


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