Flat car tires nationwide: Self-proclaimed climate protection group is hunting SUVs

This article first appeared at ntv.

Flat car tires nationwide: Self-proclaimed climate protection group is hunting SUVs

This article first appeared at ntv.de

When Jens leaves the house at night, he is not alone. An unusual companion is hiding in his jacket pocket. It is small and round and fits perfectly into the valve of car tires: the plate lens. Jens uses what others store in their pantries in his fight against climate change. He is a "Tyre Extinguisher", his enemy the SUV.

"Tyre Extinguishers" - that sounds like "Fire Extinguisher" and that's what it means. On their website, the self-proclaimed climate activists explain why they have declared the sports utility vehicle an enemy and how they want to get rid of it: open the tire valve, insert the lens, screw the cap back on. “If things happen quickly, the tire will be flat in 30 minutes,” says Jens at a meeting with ntv.de. A leaflet behind the windshield wiper is intended to warn the owners. “It’s not you, it’s your car,” it says. Then follows a detailed explanation of how harmful, deadly and unnecessary SUVs are for humanity.

According to their own information, the “Tyre Extinguishers” have been active since 2022. The group has its origins in Great Britain, but imitators can now be found all over the world. The group's actions are also becoming more and more public in Germany. In Berlin last year, around 1,100 criminal complaints were received because of flat tires, the police reported upon request. The suspected dark field is significantly higher. A suspect was arrested red-handed - the investigation into this was ongoing.

Ongoing criticism from environmental and climate protection authorities does not seem to be affecting the popularity of SUVs - on the contrary. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), almost every second new car sold last year was an SUV. Worldwide the rate was around 48 percent; in Europe, SUVs accounted for more than half of new registrations. Around 855,700 of the off-road models were also newly registered in Germany last year. According to the Federal Motor Transport Authority, the SUV share reached a record level of just over 30 percent.

An analysis by the comparison portal Check24 declared Potsdam a German SUV stronghold last year. Nowhere is the density of off-road vehicles higher. Jens, whose real name is different, saw the corresponding article in the rbb. A short time later he stuck his first lens into a tire valve. “It worked straight away,” he says and smiles. He found out about the “Tyre Extinguishers” through media reports.

Since then, Jens has been going hunting about once a week. “If the area allows it, I can manage around 100 SUVs in two to three hours,” he says. He always has enough flyers with him. He definitely didn't want anything to happen to anyone. He doesn't know who came up with the idea for the lens. However, which one fits best? To prove it, he pulls a package out of his backpack. “Mountain lentils unpeeled” is written on the label.

SUVs are larger and heavier than conventional cars. Accordingly, their energy consumption is also significantly higher. According to a study by the IEA, SUVs consume around 20 percent more fuel than ordinary mid-size cars. Despite increasing sales of electric models, the 330 million SUVs worldwide emitted almost a billion tons of CO2 in 2022. For comparison: According to the Federal Environment Agency, Germany's total CO2 emissions were around 750 million tons in the same year.

For Jens, the fact whether an SUV runs on fossil fuel or electricity makes no difference. Because even if electric or hybrid models emit less CO2 when driving, there is still the problem with size and weight, he says. According to an analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, large and heavy cars, despite being electric, are sometimes more harmful to the environment than smaller gasoline-powered vehicles. According to the IEA, this is due, among other things, to the emissions that would be caused during production. “Before you drive off in an electric SUV, your footprint alone is around ten tons of CO2,” says Jens.

“SUVs kill more people,” it also says on the Tire Extinguishers website. It is difficult to prove whether this is true. A 2022 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows at least that larger vehicles such as SUVs and vans are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents involving pedestrians. This is due to the driver's limited visibility due to the design. In a study of cyclist injury rates, the IIHS found that they were also more seriously injured in collisions with SUVs than in collisions with conventional cars. The reason for this is also the raised vehicle fronts.

Jens is also a cyclist. Before he committed himself to the fight against SUVs, he took part in climate demonstrations. But in the end that was too much talk for him, while the sticking operations of the last generation were too risky and the penalties were too high.

Unlike Fridays for Future or the Last Generation, the group of “Tyre Extinguishers” consists of loners. “There is no leader,” says Jens. There is hardly any contact between the members, they act autonomously, successes are posted on X, Facebook or in Telegram groups.

Jens doesn't know any other members either. Sometimes he sends particularly successful campaigns with a photo and location information to the “Tyre Extinguishers” email address. He doesn't know who or how many are sitting at the desk there. He also rarely gets any feedback. “They’re relatively narrow-lipped,” he says. "I think the focus here, unlike the last generation, for example, should really be solely on the actions." This is one of the reasons why all members act largely anonymously. They want to remain unrecognizable and strike mainly at night. Jens also doesn't want to get caught under any circumstances. When he's out at night, he wears gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.

“Damage to property” is the accusation in all investigations into flattened car tires pending in Berlin. But it's not quite that simple. “If damage to the tire or rim occurs as a result of releasing the air, there is no doubt that this is the case,” says Benjamin Grunst, a specialist lawyer in criminal law at the law firm BUSE HERZ GRUNST Rechtsanwälte, in an interview with ntv.de. It is more difficult if only the air escapes from the tire without any external damage occurring. “This question even made it to the Federal Court of Justice,” said Grunst. What is crucial in this case is how quickly the original condition can be restored. "If the vehicle is near a gas station where the tire can be inflated, the impairment is not permanent - there is no damage to property," explains Grunst. If such an option does not exist, damage to property could certainly occur. In contrast to the sticking protests of the last generation, Grunst considers the assumption of coercion in these cases to be unlikely, as there is a lack of physical coercive effect.

Because of a possible political dimension, the police state security has also initiated initial investigations. Politically motivated acts that threaten the free, democratic basic order are closely linked to state security crimes. “The Tire Extinguishers group randomly damages vehicles for political reasons,” says Grunst. Damage to property is not a typical state security crime, such as the formation of a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, responsibility may exist here.

Jens can understand that SUV owners are very angry. He has no pity. When it comes to mini-SUVs, he sometimes gets confused. "But with the really big things - no chance." He thinks we actually have to take an even more extreme approach. He will not give up his dream of car-free cities; nor his fight for it. Even if the end may not justify the means from a legal perspective - for Jens it always does.