When Home Seems To Be on the Road
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Thirteen-year-old Danielle Mangrum loves her new room. It has two TV screens, so she can watch the Disney Channel while her 9-year-old sister, Diamond, watches a DVD on the other. It has an elaborate stereo system, new leather furnishings and a table where she can hunker down and do her homework.
It also gets about 20 miles to the gallon.
A few months ago, Danielle's parents invested in a high-end Dodge minivan to "enhance" -- as her parents put it -- their time on the road. The busy Bowie family can spend up to four hours a day shuttling up and down Route 301 to church and school activities, including dance practice for Danielle and soccer games for Diamond. They wanted their commute to be as comfortable as possible.
Danielle calls the van her "house on wheels."
As drivers spend more time in their cars, manufacturers are giving them more of the comforts of home. Increasingly, cars are being marketed as destination points rather than as ways to get from place to place.
Ford has a car coming out this summer that has a refrigerator. Dodge minivans have cartoon channels on satellite TV. Radio systems have not just ports for favorite music but room for slide shows of family photos. There are electrical outlets for hair dryers and laptops -- even a cheap router that can turn a car into a mobile Internet hot spot.
Transportation planners and sociologists say the car-as-home trend is an outgrowth of the increasing burdens of long commutes and congestion.
"We're spending more and more time in our cars . . . and instead of addressing the terrible experience of commuting, we just do more and more pleasant cars," said Andres Duany, an advocate for walkable communities and the author of the book "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream."
"Cars are wonderfully comfortable these days," Duany said. "They cocoon you; you can sit in them for hours and work from them. But it doesn't address the fundamentals about why we need nicer cars. The issue is that we are spending too much time commuting and too much time driving."
Experts in driver safety say they fear that the new bells and whistles could become as distracting as cellphones. Some parents, though, say the best safety device is an entertainment system that keeps the kids quiet in back.
A wide-ranging 2006 federal study showed that inattentive driving contributed to almost 80 percent of all crashes and near misses. Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute equipped 100 cars with cameras and saw drivers engage in a variety of risky behavior -- changing shirts behind the wheel, putting in contact lenses and eating.
But consumers' love affair with roomy luxury vehicles persists, particularly in the affluent counties that ring the Beltway. The Washington region is the No. 2 market for minivans in the country, according to Chrysler.