Big SUV? Get a Commercial License

Our goal is to get all cars out of private hands. In the beginning, however, it might be worthwhile to target the most dangerous, the most environmentally damaging, and the most outright obnoxious cars. In other words: the biggest cars.

As I travel the streets of Southern California, I have noticed an interesting correlation: the least competent drivers always want to drive the biggest SUVs and vans. This makes them feel a lot safer, but puts the rest of us in a state of constant risk. How many times have we all nearly been forced off the road by some ultra wide vehicle whose driver can not keep it in their own lane? How man questionable right turns have we made on red lights because (tall and opaque) SUV in the left turn lane has pulled it all the way into the cross walk, blocking our view?

When these vehicles get in a collision, the results are devastating. Kinetic energy is directly proportional to mass. At a given speed, a vehicle that weighs twice as much will transmit twice as much energy to the object with which it collides.

I will not even address the driving habits of red-neck jack asses in jacked-up pickup trucks.

My point is, bigger vehicles are harder to control and more hazardous for other road users. The people who want them most are usually the ones who should not have them.

Environmentally, it is clear that larger vehicles are more damaging. The use a lot more material, all of which will eventually need to be recycled or otherwise disposed up. I would direct you to Katie Alvord’s excellent book Divorce Your Car (New Society Publishers, 2000) for a discussion of the direct and indirect costs of manufacturing, maintaining, and disposing of cars. It is likely that most of these costs are proportional to weight.

Obviously, larger vehicles waste much more fossil fuel, which should be a concern to everybody. Likewise, they release many more pollutants into the atmosphere. In the US they are required to meet much laxer emissions standards than normal cars.

There is a simple way to attack the drivers of thees dangerous and wasteful vehicles. Most states currently require commercial drivers licenses for vehicles above a certain gross vehicle weight (GVW). In most states this kicks in around 10,000 lb GVW. A rather simple change in the motor vehicle code would redefine commercial vehicles as being any vehicle over 6,000 GVW. This would include most large SUVs, full sized vans, and pickup trucks.

The change would require that anyone owning one of these vehicles would need to register them as commercial vehicles (which typically costs more and requires more paperwork than private vehicles). Their insurance rates would probably increase. Most importantly, they would be forced to obtain commercial licenses.

Most people who actually need to drive these vehicles for work probably already have a CDL, or could get one fairly easily. It could provide a useful barrier, however, for the sort of driver we have been speaking about.

The federal Department of Transportation (DOT) has guidelines for the issuance of a commercial drivers license. In general applicants must pay extra fees, take an additional multiple choice test, pass a road test in a commercial vehicle (which usually requires a special appointment), pass a comprehensive physical (which they must repeat every two years), and undergo a federal background check.

All of these requirements are perfectly reasonable for someone who wants to operate a vehicle heavier than 6000 lbs. Indeed, they are rather modest considering how dangerous, dirty, and environmentally damaging they are. Hopefully some day we can outlaw them altogether. For now, we can change the laws to make them harder to operate.

The War Against The Car (Introduction)

In 2006 I was a casualty of war. The war I refer to is the struggle of ordinary people like me against the forces of big oil and the automotive companies and the car culture they have created to enslave humanity. I dared to walk along an American road and was run down and crippled by the enemy, a car. Ironically I, who have been car light or car free since I was 15, was forced to use a car extensively for the next two years because of my injuries. Only recently have I returned to the bicycle as my primary means of transportation (supplemented by trains and the bus). The war goes on. I am back on active duty. I still think we can win.

I am not speaking metaphorically. This is a real war. Many people on both sides have been killed by one of mans deadliest weapons—the automobile. Real violence erupts all the time. In the last two weeks two drivers have screamed threats of bodily harm at me because they resented the fact that I was driving in traffic. Even though my left arm is still crippled, I realized that it was my duty to stand and fight. Luckily, they proved less willing than me to suffer physical injury for their beliefs. Had they had superiority of numbers I’m sure I would have suffered a severe beating.

In the last few weeks I have been trying to assess the direction of transportation activism in this country. I’m pleased to see that the ranks of bicycle activists, transportation reformers, and mass transit advocates have swollen in the wake of the latest gas crises. Terrific! They are my brothers in arms and I salute them. Unfortunately, their strategies are critically flawed.

The usual argument goes like this: “If we improve mass transit, build bike paths, improve the bikes themselves, and educate people about fitness then they will all abandon their cars and flock to our side.” This will not work. Here in Los Angeles we have one of the largest and biggest bus and subway systems in the country, yet LA is the very heartland of the evil car culture. Bike paths are great for a nice Sunday morning ride, but they don’t tend to go to any of the places we work or shop or live. Bikes are already awesome. People are lazy. As long as cars are cheap and assessable they are going to drive them. The fact that they are destroying the planet and endangering the lives of themselves and their neighbors will always be secondary to their own comfort and convenience.

The the only way to fight the car culture is a head-on attack. The only way to eliminate cars from the road is to make them hard to acquire, expensive to drive, and eventually illegal to own or produce. In my next few entries I will explore ways to attack the car culture. Few of them will be easy. In fact, most of them will take a lot of time, money, and courage. This is a real war, remember?

I also reserve the right to slip in a few useful bicycle or woodworking shop tips and perhaps an amusing fire sprinkler anecdote or two—just to lighten the mood.

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