Boulder County dangles loans to encourage home improvements

Persuading Americans in love with the concept of saving energy to actually do it is getting personal in Boulder. A thermology expert who hunts for “energy vampires” has just arrived at Loraine Masterton’s door. Over the next hour, Shawn Le Mons will fire up a reverse-fan and create a vacuum inside Masterton’s split- level home. He’ll comb every room, aiming an infrared camera gun, detecting temperature differentials that indicate leaks.

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He Chased Mysteries, Became One

Double life discovered after Denverite vanishes

PALEOCHORA, Greece – He led a double life – as a library
telephone operator residing in Denver with his mother, and as a
well-to-do, globe-trotting archaeologist.

Then Paul Michals, 48, disappeared.

He was last seen a year ago on the rocky south coast of Crete,
the Mediterranean island where he explored ruins of early western
civilization.

Greek police found his passport and $114 in his room at the
modest seaside Hotel On the Rocks. A ground and air search failed
to find him. Today, authorities on two continents are stumped.

Perhaps Michals perished on the bone-dry trail that traverses
cliffs and cuts into gorges laden with unexcavated tombs and
temples. It’s “quite possible” that a person could fall here and
never be found, U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns told Denver Mayor
Wellington Webb in a letter from Athens.

Perhaps he was kidnapped or murdered. A Denver Police
Department report reads: “may be victim of foul play.” Greek
police don’t rule that out.

Perhaps he deliberately disappeared to remake his life – or
to end it.

You could find other equally vexing missing-person cases.
U.S. police agencies reported 876,213 people missing last year. A
near-record 98,431 cases, like this one, are unsolved.

The Paul Michals mystery illustrates how – at a time when
digital communications, global-positioning satellites and
electronic records seemingly make anyone easy to find – someone
still can vanish.

Michals e-mailed friends almost daily. From those messages,
from interviews with police and friends, and from receipts he
mailed to his mother in Denver, pieces of a puzzle emerge.

The value of his brokerage account dropped from nearly
$600,000 in 1998 to about $80,000 in November 1999.

A passport that Michals reported stolen two months before he
disappeared never was recovered.

In 1998, he opened a bank account in Sydney, Australia, and
spoke with a friend about buying property in Australia.

Archaeology companions said Michals was deeply discouraged
after a failed romance.

Only now are acquaintances unraveling his double life.

Those who knew Michals the archaeologist had no idea he grew
up in Denver housing projects, lived with his mother and worked
part-time as the late-shift switchboard operator at the Denver
Public Library’s central branch. “He told us he was an independent
computer programmer,” said Steve Arbury, a college professor and
archaeology volunteer who worked with Michals on Crete.

Those who knew Michals the switchboard operator had no idea
he had earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in the stock
market, and that as a self-made archaeologist he was among fewer
than 100 scholars to crack an ancient Mycenean language that
enabled him to decipher inscriptions on ruins excavated around the
Mediterranean Sea.

“DO YOU THINK HE’S OUT there somewhere?” asks Michals’ mother,
Constance Rolon, 78, a retired city government secretary. She
keeps a candle burning next to the Bible in their tiny north
Denver home, still listening for the 10 p.m. clink of the
chain-link back gate that signaled her son’s return.

Rolon moved from New York to Denver with an infant daughter
after her husband was killed in World War II. Paul was born Feb.
6, 1953. He never knew his father, George Michals, a Greek
immigrant who abandoned the family.

He graduated from West High School, then the University of
Northern Colorado on a scholarship. He couldn’t afford to pursue
graduate studies in physics as he wanted. He returned to live with
his mother. He took a job in 1976 shelving books at the library.

“Very intelligent, he had high moral standards, was honest,
worked hard,” said Marilyn Chang, who interviewed him then and
kept in touch. Michals worked at the library for nearly 25 years –
mostly handling telephone calls patiently, usually alone in a
switchboard room.

He worked 25 hours a week from midafternoon to 9 p.m., never
taking dinner breaks. He rode the bus home, first to the public
housing where he and his mother lived for years, then to the
bungalow he bought for $73,946 in 1995.

Once, co-worker Jim Martin talked him into accepting a ride.
Michals insisted on being dropped off a few blocks from his house,
and pointedly declined future rides. He told Martin “he preferred
to take the bus because the bus driver always counted on him being
on the bus. It’s like he didn’t want us to know where he lived.”

Michals loved movies, especially the Jimmy Stewart classic
“It’s a Wonderful Life,” and ran a popular Jimmy Stewart Web site.

Exile Can’t Quell Bhutto’s Resolve

Exiled in the Persian Gulf emirate Dubai, in a house by a
mosque, Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto sat down
at her personal computer.

“The days that I am too busy to worry about what my opponents
are doing to me are the good days,” Bhutto typed. She was
responding to interview questions from Colorado, where she’ll
arrive today for a speech at the Buell Theatre as part of the
Unique Lives and Experiences lecture series.

Bhutto has battled political opponents, and they’ve battled her – accusing each other of corruption – for most of her adult life.

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, she originally wanted to be a
journalist. But when she returned to Pakistan in 1978, her beloved
father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had just been replaced
in a coup by General Zia ul-Haq. In 1979, she watched as Zia’s
agents hanged her father. Then she endured frequent detentions. By
1986, she’d taken on the role of an opposition political leader.
And after a mysterious midair plane explosion killed Zia in August
1988, Bhutto became prime minister.

At age 35, she was one of the youngest heads of state in
modern times – and the first woman to lead an Islamic nation. She
tried to improve health and education for the 150 million people
of Pakistan, an emerging power west of India where the average
income is $500 a year.

Yet politics is a deadly game in Pakistan, and Bhutto soon
was absorbed in the climate of sectarian violence and corruption
that have plagued her country since Britain created it in 1947 as
a home for India’s Muslims.

Dictators claiming to combat corruption toppled Bhutto twice,
in 1990 and 1996.

Her two brothers were murdered, one allegedly poisoned, the
other shot by police. Her husband, Asif Zardari, has been jailed
for four years on corruption charges that are under appeal.

A year ago, Bhutto was convicted of embezzling hundreds of
millions of dollars and barred from holding public office. She
denies any wrongdoing, blaming “a kangaroo court” led by the son
of the man who ordered her father’s execution.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s other main political figure, former
prime minister Nawaz Sharif, faces worse trouble: a life jail
sentence inside Pakistan for hijacking and terrorism. Sharif was
overthrown last October in a military coup that installed Gen.
Pervaiz Musharraf.

This leaves Bhutto at 46 – exiled yet still committed to the
Pakistan People’s Party her father founded – positioning herself
for a return to power if ruling generals allow an election.

On frequent visits to England and the United States, she
projects an image of serene self-confidence, hiding any personal
anguish she may feel.

“When I think of the tragedies in my life, I break down in
tears,” Bhutto wrote. She especially misses her murdered brother,
Murtaza. “I can still feel the warmth of his cheek on mine as we
kissed goodbye and the smile on his face as he waved.”

Part of her mission in Denver is building understanding of
the Islamic world in general, as well as Pakistan and South Asia.
This is a region State Department officials see increasingly as a
hotbed of anti-U.S. sentiment, a fundamentalist refuge for
terrorists such as Osama bin Laden, where opium production gives
rise to global drug dealing.

On the fundamentalist forces emanating from Pakistan’s
Taliban-ruled neighbor Afghanistan, Bhutto said women in
Afghanistan are concerned about education and career
opportunities. But women support the Taliban, Bhutto acknowledged.
They do so, she said, “out of fear.”

Bhutto praised President Clinton’s recent visit to Pakistan
for highlighting choices she believes Pakistan must make between
becoming a closed fundamentalist society, or a democracy committed
to building peace in the region.

And in that region, she said, persistent U.S. bombing of Iraq
is “a sad reflection on our international systems of conflict
resolution.” Children are suffering; the bombing “hurts innocent
people,” Bhutto said.

“Iraq made a critical mistake in invading Kuwait. Some way
should now be found to guarantee peace.”

Worldwide, she believes that U.S. women, relatively affluent
and well-educated, are in a position to make a difference. They
collectively hold power, in her view, to confront Pakistan’s
current deadly mix: religious fervor, hungry masses, widespread
disillusionment and nuclear weapons.

“Do something about it,” Bhutto said. “We are all part of one
world, one humanity, one global family. Do something. Donate a
dollar to a (nongovernmental organization), write a letter to a
congressman, speak at a seminar against proliferation, raise your
voice for tolerance. To stay quiet is to acquiesce, and to
acquiesce is to surrender to the forces of darkness.”

There are plenty of critics – well-informed
Pakistani-Americans among them – who view Bhutto as a has-been.
She comes from a noble family and, in the eyes of some, never
broke rank. Her conviction by a Pakistani court and inability to
improve life for Pakistan’s impoverished masses lead some to
question her image as a liberal democratic heroine.

But Bhutto also is popular, especially among women in the
United States, according to surveys conducted as part of the
Unique Lives and Experiences program bringing her to Denver.

Program director Howard Szigeti, based in Toronto, said in a
survey of 2,700 women in Denver, only former British Prime
Minister Margaret Thatcher, author Toni Morrison, National Public
Radio analyst Cokie Roberts, and NBC morning show host Katie
Couric rated higher than Bhutto. Bhutto proved more interesting to
American women, according to the survey, than Coretta Scott King,
Barbara Bush, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sarandon and Martha Stewart,
among others.

And despite her traditional “shalwar-kameez” attire and
headscarf, she shares much in common with the western audiences
she meets.

She enjoys reading books.

She loves the time she spends with her three children – they
go on walks, eat out, drive to see the lights in the city, watch
movies and plays.

She laments that over the past two years – since her last
visit to Denver – she hasn’t been able to follow a health club
routine or develop any new interests.

Most of all she’s just busy. Beyond Denver this week, Bhutto
is scheduled to speak in Boston and Edmonton, Alberta, then visit
friends in Washington, D.C.

“Slow days are few and far between,” she said. “Life is still
a big rush.”

Few Fears on New Year’s Here, Abroad

World enters brand-new era quietly 

It was a scream heard around the world, but it wasn’t the
scream the world had expected at the dawn of 2000.

When all the machines seemed to work perfectly, global crisis
management officials were reduced – or elevated, perhaps – to
talking about the first bouncing baby boy born at 12:15 a.m. local
time on the island of Guam.

The newest human life on U.S. soil reminded Guam and the
waiting world that the wonders of the flesh still trump the
mysteries of the megabyte, from the South Pacific to the South
Bronx.

“The mother and baby are doing fine,” said a bemused U.S. Y2K
czar John Koskinen to an international television audience, after
first announcing that a worldwide “scouring” for disasters related
to the year 2000 changeover had turned up a handful of items that
wouldn’t make the front page of a kindergarten newsletter.

“Good changeover!’

And wherever people gathered – as midnight moved from
Australia west to Alaska – it was rarely hard to find a tether
linking them back to Colorado. Reaching these people almost
instantly by telephone was a measure of just how interconnected
the world had become.

“Good changeover!” said Mark Vollmer, formerly of Louisville
in Boulder County, now living north of Sydney, Australia. Vollmer
and his family were among the world’s first to experience 1999
becoming 2000 and see that their preparations – extra fuel for
their barbecue – weren’t immediately necessary.

The Vollmers watched Sydney’s $3.5 million fireworks display
on television and played in a field behind their house with
sparklers.

“We seemed to whiz right along,” Vollmer said before finally
going to bed.

As the new millennium finally reached Denver hours later,
Marshall Emm sat down in front of his ham radio and sent midnight
greetings by the old fashioned method of a telegraph key, the New
Year’s Eve tradition of U.S. amateur radio fans. Tapping away with
one of the oldest forms of worldwide communication, Emm learned
that the newest forms of worldwide communication were still
working just fine.

“Infrastructure holding’

New York City cops mugged for ubiquitous TV cameras and kept
their riot batons holstered.

The decided lack of global glitches served to pump up the
volume at street and harbor parties from Sydney to Giza, Egypt.
Russians added an extra toast to their parties when longtime
President Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation in favor of new
blood for the next millennium, and dancers in New Delhi seemed to
bounce a little higher when worries about a hijacked Indian
Airlines plane dissipated with the passengers’ safe release.

Fireworks flashed and crackled worldwide – and electric
lights still glowed – as hundreds of millions of people celebrated
a new century.

“The infrastructure is holding,” said Lisa Pellegrin,
spokeswoman for the International Y2K Cooperation Center in
Washington, where United Nations-funded technicians are monitoring
conditions in 106 countries.

Celebration was relative, of course, with a fourth of
humanity struggling to survive, according to a new United Nations
report, on less than $1 a day.

“Here we can’t talk about fireworks,” said Father Gaston
Muyombo, formerly of central Denver’s Saint Louis Parish, now
serving people in Central Africa’s war-torn Congo.

“What we are doing here is just a matter of survival,”
Muyombo said.

For those who could celebrate, among the happiest were
families united.

In Mexico, Karina Azanza Morales, Colorado’s trade
representative, drove from her office in Guadalajara to join her
parents and other relatives at the family home in Leon. They
feasted Friday night and rejoiced at recent birth of a niece. Then
they broke out the grapes. During each of the last 12 seconds of
1999, they ate one grape, until the final moment. “A Mexican
tradition,” Karina explained. “For good luck.”

In Moscow, school principal Tatiana Yurovskaia waited to hear
from her son in San Francisco. They’d toured Colorado together,
staying in the mountains, but now were depending on telephone
connections. And when the phone rang, the news was amazing. “He
asked me, “What is going on?'” Yurovskaia said. “I said, “I have
no idea.’ He told me: “The Russian president resigned.’ I’d heard
nothing. There was nothing on television. Later I heard a radio
report. I learned about Russia’s president resigning from California!”

In the Middle East, former Denver resident Arlynn Nellhaus
drove her white sedan through Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives. A
few Christians awaited midnight there watching for Jesus Christ.
Yet political fervor over the possible return of Golan Heights
land to Syria overshadowed the move from one century to the next,
Nellhaus said. “We’re so involved in political stuff here that we
can hardly think about it.”

Chilly celebration

On the shores of the winter pack ice at Hudson’s Bay, Canada,
the town famous for dancing with polar bears worried far more
about a blizzard than any Y2K shocks. On Christmas Day, Churchill
Mayor Michael Spence reported, the icy town of 1,200 suffered 80
mph winds and evacuated 200 people to the town hall.

For New Year’s Eve, everyone fired up their snowmobiles and
went back to the town center for an all-night party, with
musicians brought in on the railroad – owned by a Denver-based
company – since there’s no road to get there.

In the United States, widespread partying was tempered
somewhat by duty and sheer exhaustion. Millions like Bryan Sanchez
worked overtime on millennial preparedness. Sanchez runs a north
Denver baking factory that is part of a worldwide network
supplying hamburger buns to McDonald’s. Early in the day, he
checked the company voice mail and heard messages from Japan to
Italy to Florida that buns were still flying off the global conveyors.

After midnight, Sanchez drove his newly washed Chrysler down
to the Denver plant to flick on the lights and machines to make
sure everything worked. Since there were no problems elsewhere in
the world, the extra buns in the Denver freezer wouldn’t be needed
as a global backup.

In some countries, leaders downplayed celebrations.

In Caracas, Venezuela, one woman was simply too sad to
celebrate. Displaced by recent mudslides, which claimed more than
30,000 lives, she encountered Dan Spicer, a Denver-based
lawyer-turned-relief workers, outside the Hilton Hotel.

She gazed at him in total dismay, Spicer said. “It’s not
important to celebrate the millennium,” she told him, “when so
many poor people are suffering here.”

All day Friday, encouraging reports bolstered faith in
technology.

And in Senegal, Dr. Khalifa Cisse, in Bargny on the outskirts
of Dakar, figured computers will be crucial for Africa’s future.
“New modern technology can help us to satisfy our needs and to
develop our knowledge and try to increase our position in life,”
Cisse said.

At the same time, people everywhere also voiced anxieties
that technology and a technological way of living threaten
humanity and nature in the 21st century.

In affluent Western societies, “even human beings have become
machines,” said Naseem Seher, 65, in Lahore, Pakistan. Her son
Masood runs a Concordia trekking business out of Buena Vista, and
she enjoys the United States when she visits each year. But
Westerners will have to acknowledge “a different approach towards
life” that she sees as stronger in non-Western societies – one
that emphasizes “the human touch, the human being.”

Visiting her grandmother in high-tech Shanghai, China,
University of Colorado engineering graduate student Bi Xu, 24,
gazed up at new shiny skyscrapers – more glass and steel closer
and taller than anything she’s seen in the United States.

China’s booming financial capital feels “scary … too
modernized,” Xu said. Yet opportunities abound there, and Xu
figured her career – like her family – will straddle Colorado and
China.   Nature is dying, warned Israeli scientist Reuven Yosef,
along the Red Sea near Elat, where he’s restoring habitat for
migrating birds. Yosef was in Colorado last year seeking funding
for his project; he’d helped with conversion of the Rocky Mountain
Arsenal to an urban wildlife refuge. “We must have our environment
intact for humans to survive,” Yosef said before climbing a desert
mountain to welcome the new century with his wife.

Hopes remained high nonetheless.

“Maybe this next century can start with more peaceful
attitudes,” Dr. Andrey Vasiliev said in St. Petersburg, Russia,
before heading to a park with his wife, children and a stash of
Chinese fireworks. “I would suppose we can be assured of another
century.”

Aquarium “Fishing” Trip a Bust

Rough Seas Hinder Collection Efforts

CABO PULMO, Mexico – Ocean Journey divers Tuesday plunged
into emerald blue waters, but they weren’t collecting fish, as
planned, for Denver’s new $93 million aquarium.

Instead, they were surveying an underwater reef for future
projects.

On Wednesday, they spent most of the day packing. And today,
the Colorado’s Ocean Journey crew will drive north up Mexico’s
Baja Peninsula, cutting short an expedition that was supposed to
gather thousands of colorful fish.

“”Disappointing,” Rich Lerner, Ocean Journey’s curator of
fishes, said of collection efforts this week. “”We’ll probably
have to purchase a little more” than previously planned – at up
to $400 a fish, he said.

By the end of this month, Ocean Journey biologists had hoped
to collect 3,500 of the 8,500 fish that the Mexican government
has allowed them to collect from the Sea of Cortez. That goal
proved elusive. Late-season hurricanes churned up waves, and
divers said that they couldn’t see far enough under water. Waves
also washed away cube-shaped cages loaded with Moorish idol fish
caught last week.

“”We’ll come back down here numerous times,” Lerner said.
“”But probably not this year. There are plenty of things for us
to do back at the ranch to get the aquarium ready.”

The aquarium is scheduled to open early next summer.

Meanwhile, Ocean Journey officials said they’ll nurture their
partnership with the caretakers of the 17,000-acre underwater
Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

Park Director Pepe Murrieta wants to build a small aquarium
along the shore where collectors could store fish. Murrieta said
fish might breed in the aquarium and that Mexican university
students could work at the facility.

Lerner said it sounded great. “”Sometimes you need to spend
some money that you may not recoup monetarily,” he said. “”It’s
a good tradeoff.”

Another possibility is teaching some Ocean Journey staffers
to speak Spanish. Only one of the biologists here this week
could speak any Spanish.

On Tuesday, Ocean Journey divers set out to inspect a reef
just outside the park boundaries, where they hope to collect
fish when the currents have cleared.

Three Ocean Journey “”aquarists” – Jenny Jeffers, Colleen
McCann and Libby Vincent – hooked up air tanks and plunged along
the anchor rope. About 30 feet underwater, they swam north along
a coral reef, silvery bubbles rising toward a cloudless blue sky.

They followed the reef toward an underwater canyon that drops
down 4,000 feet. They could see only 30 feet ahead of their
masks – less than half the normal visibility at this time of year.

“”The fish seem to be hiding today,” Jeffers said later.

4x4s Adding Danger to Roads

On her way down from Evergreen during the snowstorm last week,
Randi Murray’s Suburban utility vehicle slid out of control on
the icy road, missed a turn and smashed a Geo Prizm.

“”I can’t believe I just hurt somebody,” Murray said,
surveying the wreckage.

But State Trooper Brenda Leffler, writing Murray a ticket for
careless driving, wasn’t surprised.

When winter driving gets tough, drivers of tough vehicles
crash.

That’s long been the suspicion about people steering
four-wheel-drive Cherokees, Troopers, Explorers, Suburbans,
Jimmys, 4Runners, Blazers and other so-called “”utility”
vehicles.

Now there’s evidence.

More than 40 percent of winter accidents along Interstate 70
this year involved drivers of utility vehicles, according to a
review of hundreds of accident reports at Colorado’s Department
of Transportation.

By Colorado dealers’ estimates, utilities represent no more
than 25 percent of vehicles sold. The records suggest that many
of those crashing are driven by visiting skiers or newcomers to
the state who have yet to grasp the physics of snow.

The problem lies less in the vehicle itself than with drivers
seduced by advertising and image into thinking that their
machines are invulnerable because they’re heavier and have
four-wheel drive.

Most four-wheel-drive vehicles can maneuver better than
other vehicles on ice and snow. Unfortunately, they can’t stop
any quicker on an icy road than the average gas-saving Honda
Civic. And the weight sits up front, so the back end tends to
slide out, police say.

Any skier with a sedan has seen it. Behind you, as you crawl
up the snowy interstate, the headlights of a four-wheel drive
behemoth loom bigger and closer. The driver blows by, churning
out plumess of ice and gravel.

A few miles later, the machine rests belly-up in a ditch.

You wave politely.

In Washington, Brian O’Neill is deeply concerned. O’Neill
heads the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the main
advocacy group for insurance companies.

“”We’re giving average motorists technology that isn’t likely
to help them at all,” said O’Neill.

“”People are obsessed with the notion that utility vehicles
give them freedom that they otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s a
myth.”

And as more people buy sport utility vehicles, the drivers of
smaller cars suffer.

“”Little cars are nothing,” Rebecca Jensen said after her
Prizm was smashed by the Suburban driven by Murray, whose
Colorado license dates to July 1993. The Prizm’s horn wailed,
stuck. Acid fumes wafted from the battery. Jensen knew she’d
survived when she felt the pain in her broken arm. Her lips
puffed up like the air bags that probably saved her life.

No doubt, utility vehicles are technological marvels, made to
endure rough terrain. Four-wheel drive lets a driver accelerate
on snow like a cheetah, and advertisements play that up.

In one television commercial, a Chevy Blazer cuts deftly down
a snowfield through ski slalom gates. In another, a GMC Jimmy
effortlessly crashes through a driveway snow drift, kicking
white powder in the face of a neighbor trying to dig out his
puny sedan.

Studies indicate that most utility drivers are urban
commuters, who routinely hurry. They pilot their vehicles
primarily through traffic, heading to the office or mall, not on
remote rutted roads. Southwest Plaza, not southwestern deserts.

“”People get going too fast in these vehicles,” said Capt.
Larry Tolar, spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol.

“”We refer to the drivers as stupid to the power of four.”

Consider what happened along Interstate 70 from Kansas to
Utah during March, this year’s snowiest month.

Most of the accidents occurred between Denver and Grand
Junction – the main road to mountain resorts. Of 513 reported
accidents, 223 involved utility vehicles. That’s 43 percent.
Colorado car dealers say utilities account for 15 percent to 25
percent of new vehicles sold.    One of the worst pileups
occurred on Saturday, March 25. That afternoon, the highway
hummed with drivers headed down Vail Pass toward Vail to ski,
relax in saunas, meet friends for dinner or saunter through
Vail’s glittering shops.

Then the blizzard hit. Before they reached Vail, many drivers
spun out. They plowed into ditches. They flipped into
snowfields. They bashed into bumpers. Their vehicles littered
icy I-70 like a toddler’s scattered toys. State troopers
couldn’t begin to handle the mess.

Rescuers concentrated on injuries, and tried to clear
wreckage as fast as they could.

Fifty-eight drivers filed reports describing their accidents,
of which 18 (31 percent) involved utilities. Of those 18
drivers, 11 had out of state licenses or had received their
Colorado licenses recently. (Eight, or 44 percent, had
out-of-state driver’s licenses, while three, or 16 percent, had
obtained Colorado licenses after January 1994.)

A typical report came from Richard Van Vuren of Grand
Junction, the driver of a red and silver Ford Bronco II XLT.
He’d moved to Colorado from Kansas and had his Colorado license
for about a year.

“”… I hit a large solid ice. I downshifted immediately to
second gear and pumped my brakes. I lost control trying to avoid
vehicles ahead. After safely clearing three vehicles, I slid
into the back of a car …”

The vehicles crashing are Detroit’s hottest products. One in
every 10 new vehicles sold in America is a utility. That’s
nearly triple the market share a decade ago. Ford Explorers lead
the pack, entering the domestic fleet at the rate of 45 vehicles
an hour.

In the Rocky Mountain West, America’s fastest-growing region,
car salesmen smile broadly when they spot on their lots
newcomers like Parker resident Steve Shanklin, who drove his
Buick Regal up from Houston when he was hired by the Promise
Keepers religious campaign.

“”My friends told me I need to make sure at least one of my
cars here has four-wheel drive,” Shanklin said recently, eyeing
a Jeep Grand Cherokee that cost $38,000.

“”It’d be safer. The first snowstorm was really a wake-up
call for me. I didn’t feel confident driving to work.”

What sells four-wheel drive, marketers say, is the cachet of
freedom, the implicit promise that you can go anywhere in style.

Before 1980, four-wheel drive meant boxy Jeeps, which were
about as comfortable as a coal mining cart. If you wanted
comfort, you bought a sedan. Problem is, Cadillacs can’t climb a
rocky desert canyon.

So automakers combined ruggedness with leather upholstery,
power steering, cushy suspension and compact disk players.

Buying a Ford Explorer “”connotes no compromises on the part
of the consumer,” Ford spokesman David Reuter said.

“”You get the space. You get the safety of being up high. You
can go off the road. You get just as many luxuries as in any car
on the market.

“”It puts your mind at ease in bad weather. You know that you
can get out of just about any bad weather instance without
getting stuck, without getting stranded.”

Colorado law enforcers say the sales pitch is part of the
problem. They view utilities as the vehicular equivalent of the
mountain bike that suddenly turns mild Mr. Peepers into Evel
Knievel.

For example, State Patrol Sgt. Gary Morehead recalls one
weekend blizzard near Eagle. His radio crackled out word of a
serious accident near Vail. It was a top priority emergency.
Morehead immediately floored his State Patrol Bronco, zooming
down the snow-packed interstate.

“”I was absolutely pushing my limit because we had this
serious accident,” said Morehead, who’s trained to take
calculated risks as head of the patrol’s motorcycle team.

In the blowing snow, his blue and red lights flashed and
police sirens wailed. The Bronco’s speedometer pushed 60 mph.

As Morehead gripped the steering wheel and listened for radio
updates on the accident, he glanced in his rear view mirror and
noticed a whirl of white snow storming toward him like a
Tasmanian devil. It was a Toyota sport utility.

The man driving it blew past Morehead as if he were a pylon.

“”He actually passed me!” Morehead says, still incredulous
at such audacity. “”I’m sorry, but that was ridiculous. I had to
go stop that individual. I needed to get to the accident. But if
I’d have allowed that guy to continue, he would have caused yet
another accident.”

Morehead said he believes television ads inspire drivers to
go fast in snow. “”Some of these ads showing utilities crashing
through snowdrifts are pretty remarkable.”

Automakers bristle at the suggestion that they are
responsible. “”We wouldn’t condone any type of advertising that
promotes behavior of that sort in our vehicles,” Reuter said.

“”Accident figures have a lot more to do with the driver than
to a particular vehicle.”

But the crashing adds to a growing list of concerns about
America’s love for utilities.

“”This is in effect becoming an aggressive vehicle that
punishes people in smaller vehicles,” said O’Neill at the
Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

The utilities are heavy and consume lots of gas. (As a favor
to Detroit, Congress recently froze mileage standards for
utilities.) In contrast, the latest fuel-efficient car designs
use lightweight materials. O’Neill and others are concerned that
people who might normally buy fuel-efficient cars may be
discouraged from doing so out of fear of being crashed into by a
utility vehicle.

“”We need to keep some balance in the size of our passenger
vehicle fleet,” O’Neill said. “”While big is good for safety,
to a point, we don’t want the fleet to get any bigger and
heavier because that puts everybody in smaller vehicles at
greater risk.

“”These vehicles are much stiffer than passenger cars.
Stiffness is not good for occupant safety. And stiffness makes
these vehicles particularly aggressive when they are involved in
collisions with other vehicles.”

Out on the highways, Trooper Brenda Leffler confessed that
her patience is starting to wear thin.    After checking on
Jensen, calling for an ambulance, and handing Murray the
careless-driving ticket, she sped off to I-70, where another
four-wheel-drive vehicle had flipped.

“”You go to lots of accidents, and about all the vehicles are
four-wheel drive, and often they’re the drivers at fault,”
Leffler said.

“”You start to get a little grumpy.”