Paula Ganzi Licata




Big, Brutish and Gas-Guzzling:
A Low-Key Protest of S.U.V.'s
February 23, 2003

I try to focus on metered areas,” said Surinder Singh, who patrols primarily along Main Street in Huntington, his hometown. “They’ll take the ticket more seriously at a meter than in a parking lot.”

Mr. Singh is not a traffic policeman. He is a volunteer for Earth on Empty, an environmentalist group that has made the sport utility vehicle its special target. He estimates that since he started last November he has issued almost 200 “tickets,” orange and black leaflets designed to look like parking violation notices, to parked S.U.V.’s in Huntington and Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he works as a financial advisor.

Mr. Singh, concerned about fuel consumption and aggressive driving by S.U.V. drivers, read about Earth on Empty last summer and decided to take action. “On the ticket itself it says that if everyone in the U.S. who drives an S.U.V. drove a car instead, we could cut out Middle East oil imports entirely,” he said. “That’s very, very powerful.”

Nationwide, the anti-S.U.V. movement has gained momentum in recent months. Recently, the author Arianna Huffington revved up the debate with advertisements saying owners of gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s indirectly support terrorism. Changing the Climate, an environmentalist group, offers bumper stickers intended to be affixed to parked S.U.V.’s that read, “Ask Me How I’m Changing the Climate.” The Earth Liberation Front, an international underground movement that claimed responsibility for a wave of vandalism in Suffolk County in 2000, torched some S.U.V.’s at a car dealership in Erie, Pa., in December.

Local anti-S.U.V. activity has been nonviolent, so far, with Boston-based Earth on Empty’s national campaign leading the way. Mike Siegel, a talk-show host on the Deer Park radio station WLIE, has publicized the group and has offered its leaflets to listeners who call in and ask for them. They may also be requested online at

Like Mr. Singh, Anthony Mungioli, a Valley Stream resident who drives a Hyundai and recently received a supply of Earth on Empty leaflets, is concerned about sport utes’ fuel consumption. “Our dependency on foreign oil is ultimately a detriment to our national security,” Mr. Mungioli said. “I am a strong believer in individual freedoms, including a person’s right to drive any vehicle he or she wishes. However, if that choice begins to create poor conditions for the rest of us and contributes to a national crisis, then alternatives should be discussed.”

The anti-S.U.V. campaign is also fueled by the perception that the vehicles, or their drivers, are a hazard to others on the road. Another leafletter, Debi Arthur of Shirley, drives a Ford Crown Victoria for McRides Taxi in the Shirley, Moriches and Manorville areas, and in her off-hours a Chevrolet Caprice station wagon. Ms. Arthur said that when she is following an S.U.V., “you can’t see in front of you. We pushed all these little tiny cars on people for years and now we have these big S.U.V.’s that run right over them.”

Ed Drewitz of East Northport said that he recently received his Earth on Empty leaflets and that there is little need for S.U.V.’s locally. “On Long Island, which is mostly as flat as a pancake and gets little snow, how many people need an S.U.V.?” he asked.

Belinda Bettenhauser of Searingtown says she is someone who does. As she loaded packages into her Chevrolet Suburban the other day, she cited three children, long trips, skiing and “a whole bunch of paraphernalia that you have to carry around with you” as reasons for driving an S.U.V. “I had a Caddy Seville,” she said. “It just didn’t fit everything.”

Sonia Manetto of Roslyn Harbor said she drove a Jeep Grand Cherokee because she believed it was safer than a car. “I’ve got kids,” she explained as she strapped her baby into a car seat. “We live on a hill. We needed a four-wheel drive.”

R..L. Polk & Co., which tracks the automotive industry, counted 151,528 S.U.V.’s registered in Nassau County and 181,996 in Suffolk County as of July 2002, roughly double the number from a decade earlier, if statewide motor vehicle registration statistics are any guide. And according to Long Island car dealers, S.U.V. sales continue strong. Lou Evans, sales manager of Hasset Lincoln Mercury in Wantagh, recalled a recent Long Island regional sales meeting where it was noted that 40 percent of the current new car market is made up of S.U.V.’s. Brian Conte, general manager of Paul Conte Chevrolet in Freeport, said there had been a constant increase in S.U.V. sales over the past 5 to 10 years. “Right now, we’re selling more sport utility trucks than cars at our dealership,” he said. George Diaz, a salesman at Able Ford in Rockville Centre, said that Explorer sales were up 53 percent in the last year.

Tom Doblinger of West Hempstead recently bought a 2003 Explorer from Able Ford; his last vehicle was the 2000 model. He said he was unconcerned about the contention that the vehicles were prone to rollovers. “I was a mechanic for 38 years,’’ he said. “In my opinion, people let the tires go too low or changed lanes too fast in high vehicles.” He likes the Explorer for the safety, size and visibility. Blocking the visibility of others? “So do trucks, so does an 18-wheeler,” he replied.

Many activists only leaflet supersized S.U.V.’s such as Ford Excursions, Cadillac Escalades and Hummers. “You’d be surprised what percentage of vehicles are S.U.V.’s, and I just focus on the big ones,” said Mr. Singh.

Although Mr. Singh avoids confrontation for a number of reasons, he was almost involved in an incident. He had ticketed an S.U.V. with tinted windows, not realizing the driver was inside. “He got out and gave me a dirty look,” said Mr. Singh. “I smiled and walked away. You can do it in a not-so-confrontational manner. Plus, if they see me in civilian clothes they will take me less seriously. If they just see the ticket when they walk back, it has greater impact.”



Paula Ganzi Licata  / 516-804-0701 / / 

© Paula Ganzi Licata. All rights reserved.

web design by