- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2000

When John Gill of Clifton saw this week's snowfall mounting inch by inch, he decided to return a favor to Inova Fairfax Hospital. The beneficiary of a double heart-bypass operation there last July, Mr. Gill, 52, jumped into his 1999 Ford Explorer and helped get a hospital staff member trapped in the snow to work. He plans on going back to help as needed. "I wanted to give something back," he said in an interview.

Mr. Gill was one of countless sport utility vehicle (SUV) drivers who responded when hospitals from Richmond to Baltimore and doubtless beyond sent out pleas for volunteers to help transport physicians, nurses, staff and patients unable to negotiate the area's biggest snowfall in four years. Grateful local hospital administrators called their help "critical" to patient care. But if government regulators, activists and other SUV critics get their way, the cost of volunteering for taxi duty for Good Samaritans like John Gill is certain to rise.

Already the vehicles have suffered a blizzard of complaints. At best, critics dismiss them as needless luxuries (meaning they are comfortable). At worst, they regard SUVs as threats to human life and the Earth's environment. In a column last May, Geneva Overholser of The Washington Post referred to them as "inexplicably popular extravagances" and "nonsensical, gas-guzzling behemoths." "I feel like a lunatic about SUVs," she wrote, "and I hereby invite you to join me in raving."

One hopes that the Chevy Metro and other micro-cars she doubtless favors can get her through the snow drifts the next time she needs to get to the hospital. In the meantime, consider some of the specific objections to SUVs.

The first and perhaps most significant one at present is that SUVs pollute too much. In May the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rules tightening emissions from sport utility and other vehicles that it said would reduce smog and save 2,400 hypothetical lives each year. One says "hypothetical" because the numbers are pure speculation, and they are based on data from a controversial study that the agency has pointedly refused to release for review. The proposal follows decades of work that has already cleaned up some 95 percent or more of emissions from new autos. It could raise the price of SUVs for hospital volunteers or anyone else by several hundred dollars as well as increase the price of gas.

Another objection is that SUVs are a safety hazard to those driving smaller vehicles because the weight advantage of the sport utility vehicles ensures that the lighter car bears the brunt of the crash. Hence the need to downsize SUVs. But collisions between SUVs and smaller vehicles account for only 4 percent of automobile fatalities. Rather than make sport utility vehicles smaller which would put them at greater risk in collisions with bridge abutments, light stanchions and trees that aren't similarly downsized better to upsize other vehicles to give them the same protection as SUVs.

Still another complaint is that as "gas guzzlers," SUVs make the United States more dependent on foreign oil and, therefore, put it at risk of a gasoline shortage such as the one it endured 25 years ago at the hands of Arab oil sheiks and other members of an international oil cartel known as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). It's nice that the critics are concerned, but they should recall it was not America's subsequent frugality at the pump that broke OPEC. It was Ronald Reagan's decision to decontrol the price of oil that allowed the price of gasoline to rise, attracted more gasoline production and eventually flooded the market with gasoline that drove prices back down again. End of shortage.

Against these very theoretical concerns weigh the very real problems SUV drivers help remedy. At Inova Fairfax Hospital more than 50 persons driving Jeeps, Explorers, Expeditions, Suburbans and Navigators showed up in the midst of Tuesday's whiteout to help shuttle hospital personnel and patients as needed. As a matter of fact, in between taxi duties, three volunteer drivers even stopped to donate blood, Inova Fairfax spokeswoman Lisa Wolfington said, which is more than helpful given low blood supplies at this time of year.

Georgetown University Hospital Chief Executive Officer Sharon Flynn Hollander credited volunteers for their willingness to drive long distances into rural areas to retrieve hospital employees. "It really made a difference," she said. Kathy McCullough, vice president of patient care services at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore said the hospital's beds were full and the emergency room operating throughout the blizzard. The roughly 90 volunteers who showed up in SUVs and other four-wheel-drive vehicles transported some 500 people during the storm and, she said, "were critical for us to continue to function." As a matter of fact, she counted on her own SUV to get to work.

There may be future need for volunteers in the days to come. Persons willing to risk the wrath of the Geneva Overholsers and EPA officials of the world to help hospitals can sign up at the following numbers or look up those not listed here: Inova Fairfax Hospital: 703-698-2266; Georgetown University Hospital: 202-784-3000; University of Maryland Medical Center: 410-328-6027.

e-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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