23 March, 2012

As Promised: The Scourge of 2WD SUVs

There are literally MILES and MILES of gorgeous, pristine beachfront along the Atlantic coast of North Carolina's Outer Banks largely included within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the right to traverse those beaches, a right which has been enjoyed by generations of residents and visitors alike has been threatened by the yankee government. Read more about that HERE

For decades it has been a foregone conclusion that if you traveled to Rodanthe, Waves, Kitty Hawk, Corolla, Buxton, Irmo or Ocracoke you would need a 4WD truck, Jeep or SUV (formerly known as a "truck") to conquer the barrier sand dunes and foray out onto the shore. It seemed you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a set of 44" Mickey Thompsons or TSL Thornbirds. The people who owned, drove and LOVED their 4x4s were resourceful, sturdy and unassuming. They were kings of the road and it was unusual for anyone who did not have a legitimate, practical reason to be driving a Toyota 4Runner or Chevy Tahoe. They weren't necessarily economical. They weren't necessarily comfortable. They certainly weren't much to look at.

And then something happened in the mid-'90s. Gas prices stagnated and automobile manufacturers, inspired by obscene profits, minimal testing standards and cheap steel started to promote the SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle) to an emergent market demographic. The "minivan" (invented by Volkswagen in the '50s but commandeered by Chrysler in the '80s) and the station wagon were no longer "cool".

Let me take you back a little further. If you grew up in the '60s, '70s or even the early '80s you probably know what it was like to sit in the rumble seat in the back of a Buick or Oldsmobile touring wagon. You would stuff the car to the gills, and you and your little brother would sit in the seat furthest from mom and dad so you could make obscene hand gestures out of the back window at passing motorists.

But now the station wagon and even the minivan were losing favor. The "SUV" afforded the driver an elevated, commanding view of the road, presumed increased protection during collisions (it's a truck, right?) and the ability to carry nearly an entire pee-wee hockey team to practice, plus their gear. Many of these new, shiny products included options that beachcombers twenty years prior had only dreamed about - Pushbutton 4WD. Fold-flat seats. Modular roof racks.

But a strange thing happened next. Catty socialites and soccer moms began to appear in the driver's seats of the newest generation of behemoths. Shopping center parking lots began to fill with small land yachts being parked in as haphazard a manner as the sedans they'd once driven, but now twice the size and half the margin of error.

And even though many of these vehicles came with 4WD (or AWD) standard, the closest those vehicles would ever come to offroading is cutting the shoulder lane to beat a left-turn light. Many owners would proclaim that they could use the 4WD if it ever snowed which, in Southeastern Virginia is generally once a year, at most. But what most of these 4X4 neophytes fail to comprehend is that 4WD does not make you a better driver. It does not imbue upon you special abilities to drive through mountains of ice and snow or to stop on a dime in inclement weather. Like any other tool, it can only be utilized when its function and potential are properly understood.

Generations of North Carolinians know these things. Wait until it snows (or even rains) and see how many people in their indestructible 4WD monstrosities end up in collisions. This has further added to the danger of anyone NOT driving an iron behemoth because you are that much more likely to be pulverized by one of them in an accident. It is a simple equation when brought down to its most basic terms comes to their 5500 lb SUV bearing down on your 3500 sedan.

But that's not where it stops. Discovering that people with more money than sense (quite a lot of them) the manufacturers of these massive machines discovered that they could save thousands of dollars in manufacturing costs and sell more of these leviathans by removing one of the very components which made them so desirable in the first place - the 4WD transfer.

So now there are hundreds of thousands (if not MILLIONS) of 2WD SUVs out there being driven not as even remotely vehicles of practical convenience or UTILITY but as status symbols and grocery-getters.

America is supposedly "great" because people are free to make their own decisions and should be able to drive whatever vehicle they choose. My argument is not against the automakers who are looking to make a profit. My argument is not even against the state for licensing these passably (but barely) literate amateurs, but against the individuals for believing that they NEED a SUV. Forgetting for a minute that not a one of them knows to reduce their tire pressure before driving onto the ramp at Oregon Inlet, but let me make this perfectly clear, there is absolutely no way these vehicles should be driven onto the beach at Hatteras. Drivers of these vehicles are a danger to themselves and others and probably shouldn't be on ANY road.

To finish this argument I will share a little bit about the vehicles I drive and have driven. Presently my 2008 Dodge Dakota is a 4WD. I use the 4WD about once a week working on my property and in the summer I use it to pull my Hobie Cat onto and off of the beach at Chesapeake Park. Prior to that I owned a 2WD Dodge Dakota which I drove until the wheels nearly fell off it. I used it to haul building materials and tow the PA trailer for my band. When I needed 4WD to move my boat I borrowed my wife's GMC Jimmy, which we also took on annual trips to Hatteras and out onto the beach. Now that we have two children we purchased a Honda Pilot w/ 4WD for essentially the same purpose. We keep an offroad emergency kit aboard and a portable inflator for refilling our tires when we exit the beach.

I guess the point is that for my family 4WD has a practical and frequent use. Like thousands of families who live and work in conditions where 4WD is NECESSARY to their ability to work their jobs or maintain their homes and properties, we use trucks and SUVs for their intended purpose - doing work.

For those out there clogging the roads and driving outside your league - go home, sell your Chevy Suburban or Ford Expedition and buy a Camry. You don't need a truck. You shouldn't have one. Make the right decision.

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