The tale of my selfish urban vanity (SUV)

BUCKLEUP!

Light rain was spotting across the hood of my friend’s Alfa Romeo. The rain started coming in waves and might have even put out the fire flickering in the bush nearby – but considering what had just occurred, my friend wasn’t taking any chances.

He pulled my unconscious frame from the now burning wreck. All windows had been shattered and the windscreen was gone, allowing him to drag me over the dashboard and across the crumpled bonnet. The tree that had put a stop to our trip down the mountain was now skewering the back half of the car. I imagine I also looked like a wreck, bleeding from the ears, arm and with a serious seatbelt burn that had left parts of my neck skinless. The whiplash was severe enough to put me in a neck brace for a fortnight but it was the contusion to the side of my brain that would cause doctors the greatest concern.

My skull had made impact with the pillar beside the passenger seat. Ironically, this reduced the stress on my spine from severe lateral movement, the doctors told me some days later. Without that pillar, they believe my my neck would have snapped.

That was fifteen years ago. These days, some vehicles come with side (curtain) airbags.  Last month, I was in a used car dealership weighing up a truckload of factors; price, fuel efficiency, warranties, baby seat anchor points, cupholders, and curtain airbags, asking myself, “Am I seriously going to pass that up?”

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suvs everywhere

The decision of what to drive sees personal responsibility ramming right into various measures of safety, convenience and economy.

That horrendous day I was in a crash was fifteen years ago. I can’t actually recall any of it – beyond getting into the passenger seat minutes before the accident – but it weighed on mind last month, I was in a used car dealership weighing up a truckload of factors; price, fuel efficiency, warranties, baby seat anchor points, cupholders, and curtain airbags, asking myself, “Am I seriously going to pass that up?”

As of December 27, three Australians have died in cars each day since Christmas Eve. This is appalling but it is actually less than the average for Australia  (3.5 deaths per day). On the list of countries by traffic-related deaths, we are 11th best. (By comparison, Canada is 22nd and Russia is 57th.)

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The push for more safety features in vehicles has clearly helped reduce fatalities, as have road safety campaigns, for which our nation is well known. One five-minute montage by Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission has been viewed 15 million times.

So the message appears to be getting through. Yet, I am still baffled by the decision of many people to purchase larger cars. Larger cars are not necessarily safer than smaller cars. SUVs are more likely to rollover.

Clearly, owning a jacked-up road-hog is no big deal for many Australians. A high-riding soft-roader is now the choice of many people over the old 5-door monsters of the eighties with SUVs remaining the fastest growing segment of the Australian market in 2012, with sales up 25.3 per cent over the previous year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

I have railed against these north-shore tractors for some time – even in this very blog – so the choice creates a contradiction in my life bigger than a 2.7 tonne Lexus LX.

Climate change is real, humans influence it, and these gas-guzzling leviathans are certainly a detour on the road to cleaner energy. Plus, this is an issue of safety – for those travelling outside your heavy-metal cocoon; your limited visibility, greater weight and longer stopping distance, doubles a pedestrian’s risk of death in an accident. The size of SUVs also make them a menace to smaller vehicles, bikes, motorcycles or scooters. What risk am I happy to put other road users at?

WE WERE DUPED

In many ways, the car industry pulled an enormous swifty on buyers with the marking of such high-powered battle wagons. Just as petrol prices jumped and we all began to ditch larger family cars, and manufacturers were finding ways to pull greater performance from smaller engines, we were all sold a new fantasy that SUVs (Stupid Ugly Vehicles) could help us escape the monotony of standstill traffic with the option to go off-road at any time. It was as absurd as it was successful.

The do-gooders yelling, “Wait! Didn’t we spend the nineties mired in a hellish war over oil?”, were easily drowned out by the aspirated rattle of new SUVs leaving dealerships all over the world.

Take a moment to consider that a car ctegory that did not exist in the 1980s, now has seven sub-categories: Compact, mid-size, large, crossover, hybrid,off-road, and 3-row SUVs.

Many popular small SUVs fail a critical crash test (link below)

I would have preferred a station wagon renaissance – functional, practical, five seats and room for a late-night romp at the drive-in theatre – but no, we had to have more mountain-range Tonka toys. Thanks, Detroit.

HEY DUDE, WHERE’S MY CARGO SPACE?

The stupidity of most SUV designs is clear; more people equals more stuff, but manufacturers seem to think fifteen cup holders will do the trick. It does not. As a result, many SUVs now carry luggage pods on roof-racks. It’s madness. While no middle-class mother needs a 3-tonne vehicle to carry their kids to soccer practice, they do need more space. Families are buying an increase in height and weight – and nearly always a loss of fuel efficiency – along with much less boot space than a traditional family wagon or even some hatchbacks would have provided.

Bootspace in SUVs:

  • Volkswagen Tiguan (SUV): 395L
  • Mazda CX-5 (SUV): 403L
  • Subaru Forester (SUV): 422L

Bootspace in Non-SUVs

  • Mazda 3 hatchback: 430L
  • Commodore Sportwagon: 895L

This left me with three remaining issues.

PEOPLE MOVERS

The Honda Odyssey, The KIA Carnival, the planet-sized Mercedes Vito all offer at least seven seats but in the case of the Honda and KIA, the bootspace is sadly lacking and bizarrely, access to the Odyssey’s third row is restricted if you have kids in the middle row. This is akin to buying a bigger TV with an immovable sticker in the middle of the screen. Great… but, c’mon!

SEVEN SEATERS

So you want five seats AND a boot big enough for five people? I decided the best way around this dilemma was to get an extended SUV that has a large boot when you lie a third row of seats flat. I wish it were a seven seater station wagon but such models usually include after-market seats that face backwards. If your kid is blind, this is perfect. If they are not, they soon will be. I like to think of it as more of a people mover.

DIESEL POWER

I love diesels. They have less parts, travel further on a single tank and will last longer than your average petrol engine. Annoyingly, I am pretty sure that the week i bought my first diesel, the price of diesel fuel began creeping above the cost of unleaded and it ids often 5% above it.

Thankfully, How Stuff Works says “the diesel is hard to beat, delivering as much as 25 percent more mileage (on diesel fuel) than a gasoline engine of similar size” – something I have found to be true even when driving a car in the inner suburbs 80% of the time.

Diesels also offer our best chance of bio fuel becoming a viable option. There are some concerns about carcinogens in diesel fuel you should know about. If you think the smoke is brown, there is turbo lag or the engine noise is much worse than petrol engines, modern diesels have done away with all these.

More reading:

Your SUV uses more fuel (per person) than a Boeing 737

How to Buy A Fuel-Efficient Car

Diesel Emissions Spark Health Fears

American Gun Deaths to Exceed Traffic Fatalities by 2015 – Bloomberg

Bicycle sales overtake CARS for the first time ever in Europe

Popular small SUVs fail critical crash test

Cutting your car use

National holiday road toll falls by nearly half on last year

 

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BLOG: Standing up for something … like six months

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You’ve been sitting for the last few hours, or so. You’d go visit Alan in accounts but you really want to get this final TPS report done. You might get up if your bladder gets really insensitive, but you’ve broken through that barrier before. Did you even have lunch? Didn’t you have a meeting at 11am?

You say you are in "the zone" but you are actually in a funk. And that twinge is back; when you slide down in your chair, your back begins to hurt. It hurts in an annoying way that reminds me of the way seagulls at the beach are annoying; you’re eating chips, so of course a seagull will come squawk at you, that’s what they do. It’s one of those things we come to expect in life.

Coke rots your teeth.

Accountants are called Alan.

Wearing stripes makes you look fat.

You sit down for too long, your back gets sore.

Alan gif:

Imagine now that you could avoid this pain forever, and the other annoyances of sitting – e.g. breast or colon cancer, bowel cancer and diabetes and heart disease who knows how many other ailments that keep worker’s comp lawyers in Audis.

This is where I was when I decided to have a go at standing to work. My current role is in a large organisation a sports media company in a functional building with the requisite rows of desks, grey carpet, minimal noise. This predictability was a risk to my health and visual consistency is a downer in any creative environment. Furniture, music and wall art can help, but they’ll only take the edge off it. And in an open plan office, not everyone likes my selection of eighties dance hits and nineties grunge.

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I needed a game changer, something to feel more alive but also to help spur my mind, get my circulation going. A meeting at YouTube in Google’s Sydney offices introduced me to a standing desk for the first time. Initially, I couldn’t even fathom it. Was it a compact work station for temp staff who aren’t worth the floor space a chair demands? Capitalism is so crude, I thought. Google ain’t such a great employer, I thought.

(Flashback to my brief stint spent working at McDonald’s – "WHY LEAN WHEN YOU CAN CLEAN!", the managers would grin — at this I could barely restrain my McNugget tongs from wrenching their clip-on tie from their body.)

A bit of research lead me to find standing up has multiple health benefits, most of which make immediate sense. You move more, you walk around more. Your blood flow improves. Your heart rate increases. You sleep better.

The collective result of this is more calories burned. But this didn’t interest me nearly as much as two other findings I made; your ergonomics improve and your mind is more alert.

It’s bizarre to think our bodies were designed to sit for eight hours a day, (then two hours more on the couch at night laughing at celebs busting their guts on Dancing With The Stars).

And this isn’t about furniture or ergonomics. Believe me, I have sat in some awesome chairs. I once visited Denmark where I dropped in on the Trapholt museum, a simple shrine dedicated to the Danish love of the seat. I love sitting. It’s a comfy, relaxing thing to do, I admit. But in every chair, regardless of its beauty, I can slump like an oaf on a couch.

In the office, relaxing doesn’t seem to provoke action. It could even work against it.

Sitting in an office, I know that as the hours wear on, my shoulders will curve forward and my spine will gradually compress until I am delaying any body movement at all, as I strain to keep my mind on the urgent tasks at hand.

In this zone, I struggle to break the monotony. It has to stop – and it often did with a child-like sprint to the toilets that must have appeared as if I was the only person who had heard a fire alarm.

Doesn’t it hurt?
Two weeks in and my body had become used to the new arrangement. Haven’t felt a (bad) thing since. It’s actually easier to stand in other places now, like on the train, at concerts, in queues.

Isn’t it exhausting?
To be honest, I slept better from day one. Not longer, just better. I think I actually have more energy throughout the day and I now go to sleep a little later at night.

That must be good for your core.
My what? Oh yeah, great.

Office reaction
I had read from other people’s accounts that colleagues are often amused at seeing someone standing and take a few weeks to get used to it. For me, this is still a daily occurrence. It may never cease. Thus could be because there are many people at my workplace who I have only talked to via phone, email or twitter, and eventually they come by my desk. The exchange usually goes something like this:

Them: "WOAH…. What ARE you DOING!!??"
Me: "I stand sty my desk now. You should try it."
Them: "You aaaaare joking, right? That. Is. Ridiculous. You are insane."

(I work in the media. People are very frank.)

Standing desks
Standing desks are a thing and if you believe some reports, the number of office staff using them will explode in coming years. I’m sure some longitudinal stories will be needed before the benefits are confirmed, the deniers are silenced and we start seeing witty posters in the kitchen saying "Stand Up for Something" or "Sitting is for the weak!"

In a cool twist, my HR department noticed what I was doing, wanted to support the vision and had soon built me a desk tailored to my exact height. Two others in the company have since tried it with others planning to do the same.

This is the WIRED-inspired IKEA version I use. It costs $25 plus a few screws, and as I have found, raising the monitor actually makes for a cleaner desk.
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If you’re into this by now, check out some options: push-button up-desks, build your own electric desks, ugly hacks, the ‘ergotron‘, whiteboard desks and the hack I ended up using from IKEA.

Isn’t there another way?
Sure there is. "All it takes is getting off your bum a few times every hour…" says Australian professor and ‘physical activity expert’ (Seriously, when I’m a professor, don’t make me sound like I inspect playgrounds), David Dunstan who says that you could simply disrupt your work flow every quarter hour or so with a strut around the office. Easy!

You could also try an exercise ball. I did and I found a way to slump on that too.

And if you want to go a steep further, don’t think there are not people working, at a desk, while on a treadmill.

More articles on the dangers of sitting and the beauty of standing.

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More photos of standing desk options, from the practical to the plain stupid.

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me tweeting

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