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Marin mom's campaign drive for cleaner cars

By Joy Lazendorfer

These days, it seems like every other car on the road is a suburban utility vehicle. You see them all the time, those large, boxy vehicles soaring down highways, lining up for gas and getting stuck in automated car washes. Considering that the North Bay is supposedly full of educated, earth-loving people, how can we explain the popularity of these vehicles, which have some of the worst safety ratings, highest emissions and poorest fuel economy of all the cars out there?

The answer, many feel, is misinformation. For some reason, popular impressions about SUVs are just wrong. Well-meaning people, many of them moms who use their SUVs to chauffeur the kids and pick up groceries, just don't know the truth. They drive around thinking that their SUV is safer than a small car and isn't that bad for the earth. They reason that if they want to pay more at the fuel pump, hey--what harm does that cause other than to their own pocketbooks?

In response, Marin mother Betsy Rosenberg has started a campaign to give other women the information she lacked when she purchased an SUV. The Don't Be Fueled Campaign: Mothers for Clean and Safe Vehicles (www.dontbefueled.org ), which celebrates its first birthday on March 13, will soon be going national.

A radio journalist who hosts the one-minute "EcoTalk" segment on KCBS, Rosenberg says that she had a change in her karma when she got rid of her SUV and leased a Prius, Toyota's hybrid car, instead. "I didn't like my SUV," she says. "I was never comfortable."

When she switched from the SUV to the Prius, Rosenberg was amazed at the difference between the cars. But the real change came on March 13, 2002, when the Senate voted down legislation by John Kerry and John McCain to raise mileage standards on automobiles over a 13-year period. At the same time, the government was considering whether or not to drill for oil in the Arctic.

"I thought it was a no-brainer vote," says Rosenberg. "But the legislation was defeated because special interests got involved. I was appalled and shocked. My own personal contribution had been so drastically reduced since switching from the SUV, not to mention my gas bill. I thought others would see it too, but that hasn't happened."

A year to the day after the defeat of the Kerry-McCain bill, Rosenberg launched Don't Be Fueled. But, she says, the campaign is not anti-SUV. Rather, it's a "momcott" urging automakers to offer more options, like hybrid SUVs.

The campaign has an online petition to voice these thoughts to automakers. The petition, which already has several thousand signatures, demands that car dealerships "maximize safety and fuel-efficiency in all vehicles, particularly SUVs, pick-up trucks and minivans." When 10,000 people sign the petition, it will be sent to the three major car companies: Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler.

But while the campaign is focusing on the supply of hybrid vehicles, it is also encouraging demand through a series of events in the community. "We want to be the foot soldiers who are out there in the community talking to the moms," says Rosenberg. "We try to engage in conversation without blaming or judging them. After all, I was one of them."

The campaign has reached at least one person. After hearing one of the lectures, Jan Newman was faced with buying a new car sooner than she expected when she was rear-ended. While she could have gotten any car she wanted, with Rosenberg's information fresh in her mind, Newman tried out the Prius. "I thought, yes, this feels right," she says. "I'm now on a waiting list to get one."

The hype surrounding SUVs continues to be the biggest obstacle for groups like Don't Be Fueled. Many people buy SUVs because of their associations with power, sex and adventure. But it is the consumerism that really draws them in, believes Newman.

"I have friends who have SUVs," Newman says. "They have the TV in there, the CD player, a tape changer. Some even have refrigerators. They could literally live in their SUVs. They have fast-paced lives, and the SUV allows them to continue to live their fast-paced lives.

"But the flip side of that is that after awhile, you have to weigh your conscience against your consumer needs."

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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