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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of June 20 - June 26, 2001


Blaine County’s SUV love affair

Rising fuel prices not a deterrent to SUV purchases

Express Staff Writer

Sport utility vehicles are becoming one of the most visible status symbols of the "Sun Valley lifestyle," personified by reveling in outdoor games while living in the lap of luxury — although many cite the safety aspects of SUVs, too.

They are the vehicle of choice for nearly half of the Wood River Valley vehicle owners.

Streets in the valley are sometimes lined with 10 or more models representing more than a rainbow of colors. And styles vary as much as colors do. They’ve become the hallmark of the well-to-do, outdoor-loving family.

"Consumers want safer vehicles, and SUVs give them that," said AAA Idaho spokesman Dave Carlson.

Nationally, SUV and light truck sales have jumped from 28 percent of the market 10 years ago to more than 45 percent today, and the number is still climbing.

With a population of 18,991, Blaine County has 23,329 registered vehicles. Of those, 7,944 are SUVs, according to the Idaho Department of Transportation. That means there is almost one SUV for every two residents in the county. From another perspective, 34 percent of all registered vehicles in Blaine County are SUVs. The correlating number statewide is 14 percent.

"I think safety is one of the biggest reasons SUVs are so popular," said Jim Sutton II, owner of Sutton & Sons Auto Center in Hailey. "They’re useful, too. They can do everything a small car can and a lot more."

Sutton, who said nine out of every 10 of his company’s vehicle sales are SUVs or light trucks, stressed the SUV’s safety attributes over its versatility.

If there’s an accident, "the heavier car wins."

So, it’s hardly a coincidence that the Wood River Valley’s new limousine service, Sun Valley Chauffeur, offers luxury rides in a fleet of Chevrolet Suburbans.

"To fit the Sun Valley lifestyle, Sun Valley Chauffeur’s primary vehicles are Chevy Sububrans," reads a company ad. "The safety of four-wheel drive and the luxury, comfort and style will make trips safe and pleasant."

SUVs’ safety characteristics are a double-edged sword, however.

"Like an arms race, as more drivers choose heavier cars, those who choose lighter cars are in more danger," states the SUV info link, an environmental Web site posted by Friends of the Earth.

In multiple-vehicle crashes involving SUVs and passenger cars, the occupants of cars are four times more likely to be killed than occupants of SUVs, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Of the 5,259 fatalities that occurred when light trucks or SUVs struck cars in 1996, 81 percent of the fatally injured were occupants of the car, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

SUVs’ poor gas mileage and high emissions are no secret, and while gasoline prices climb this spring and summer, fuel bills will come back to bite SUV owners harder than they used to.

The average price for gasoline nationwide topped out just above $1.70 per gallon in May before slipping to $1.66 per gallon earlier this month. Idaho’s average, which appears to be still climbing, was at $1.67 early last week, Carlson said.

"Idaho’s prices are typically among the highest in the country," he said, adding that AAA suspects prices "will begin to stabilize or come down nationally."

But even while Americans are paying high prices at the pumps, consumer habits are going to be difficult to change. The safety and convenience of SUVs seem to outweigh negatives like fuel consumption and high emissions, Carlson said.

"Obviously we need to be moving in a direction of increasing fuel efficiency," he said, "but consumers want safer vehicles. At some point, if we saw gasoline prices move to a higher level, and I don’t think we’ll see that this season, I suspect we’d see (the SUV) market top off."

SUVs pose other problems, too, like municipal planning of parking spaces.

The sidewalk in front of Atkinsons’ Market in Ketchum is sometimes inundated by the bumpers of large vehicles overhanging the boundary of the private lot, Ketchum Planning Administrator Lisa Horowitz said.

"Sometimes you can hardly walk by," she said. "It seems to me that it’s the large cars that are bad."

Horowitz also said city planners must now consider the size of large vehicles when plans for underground parking are submitted to the city. The sometimes-congested and low-ceilinged parking areas must allow for SUVs.

Additionally, large vehicles such as Ford’s Excursion—19 feet long, 6.5 feet wide and 8,500 pounds, making it the largest SUV on the market—can nearly overrun city parking spaces, which are commonly about 20 feet long.

Nonetheless, Ketchum City Administrator Jim Jaquet said the balance between small and large automobiles makes parking availability even out.

Federal regulations allow SUVs to consume 33 percent more gasoline than passenger cars. The federal corporate average fuel economy standards set the fuel economy goals for new passenger cars at 27.5 miles per gallon, but under federal law, SUVs and light trucks must only achieve 20.7 miles per gallon, averaged across a manufacturer’s fleet.

But legislation introduced this spring by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Charles Schumer, D-New York, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would require SUVs and light trucks to go farther on a gallon of gas.

It’s a move that sits well with the Sierra Club’s Washington representative, Ann Mesnikoff.

"We cannot drill our way out of our energy problems," Mesnikoff said. "We consume 25 percent of the world’s oil, yet sit on only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

"These four senators, and others who will join them, are showing the way to a responsible energy policy. We need policies that move us to a cleaner energy future, not backward to more pollution."

If passed, the legislation would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 240 million metric tons every year in the United States and save consumers $27 billion at the gas pumps, Mesnikoff said.

However, Carlson said a problem with the bill is that producing more fuel-efficient SUVs could require smaller vehicle sizes, which might compromise the vehicles’ safety.

"I have no doubt that we’ll be moving toward tougher standards, but conservation is a tough sell," he said. "It sounds good only on paper and to certain folks in the argument."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.