Sitting high and mighty

New book profiles SUV drivers and explains why they act like they do

Photo By Tom Angel

Have you ever wondered why sport-utility-vehicle drivers seem like such jerks? Surely it’s no coincidence that Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, tours Washington in one of the biggest SUVs on the market, the Cadillac Escalade, or that Jesse Ventura loves the Lincoln Navigator.

Well, according to New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher’s new book, High and Mighty, the connection between the two isn’t a coincidence. Unlike any other vehicle before it, the SUV is the car of choice for the nation’s most self-centered people; and the bigger the SUV, the more of a jerk its driver is likely to be.

According to market research conducted by the country’s leading automakers, Bradsher reports, SUV buyers tend to be “insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities. They are more restless, more sybaritic, and less social than most Americans are. They tend to like fine restaurants a lot more than off-road driving, seldom go to church and have limited interest in doing volunteer work to help others.”

He says, too, that SUV drivers generally don’t care about anyone else’s kids but their own, are very concerned with how other people see them rather than with what’s practical, and they tend to want to control or have control over the people around them. David Bostwick, Chrysler’s market research director, tells Bradsher, “If you have a sport utility, you can have the smoked windows, put the children in the back and pretend you’re still single.”

Armed with such research, automakers have, over the past decade, ramped up their SUV designs to appeal even more to the “reptilian” instincts of the many Americans who are attracted to SUVs not because of their perceived safety, but for their obvious aggressiveness. Automakers have intentionally designed the latest models to resemble ferocious animals. The Dodge Durango, for instance, was built to resemble a savage jungle cat, with vertical bars across the grille to represent teeth and big jaw-like fenders. Bradsher quotes a former Ford market researcher who says the SUV craze is “about not letting anything get in your way, and at the extreme about intimidating others to get out of your way.”

Not surprisingly, most SUV customers over the past decade hail from a group that is the embodiment of American narcissism: baby boomers. Affluent and often socially liberal, baby boomers have embraced the four-wheel-drive SUV as a symbol of their ability to defy the conventions of old age, of their independence and “outdoorsiness,” making the off-road vehicle a force to be reckoned with on the American blacktop.

Photo By Tom Angel

But as Bradsher declares in his title, this baby boomer fetish is considerably more harmful than the mere annoyance of yet another Rolling Stones tour or the endless commercials for Propecia. In their attempt to appear youthful and hip, SUV owners have filled the American highways with vehicles that exact a distinctly human cost, frequently killing innocent drivers who would have survived a collision with a lesser vehicle. Bradsher quotes auto execs who concede that the self-centered lifestyle of SUV buyers is apparent in “their willingness to endanger other motorists so as to achieve small improvements in their personal safety.”

After covering the auto industry for six years, Bradsher is an unabashed critic of sport-utility vehicles and the automakers that continue to churn them out knowing full well the dangers they pose. He doesn’t equivocate in his feeling that driving an SUV is a deeply immoral act that places the driver’s own ego above the health and safety of those around him, not to mention the health of the environment. Ironically, and though most supposedly safety-conscious owners don’t realize it, SUVs even imperil those who drive them.

Road Rodeo
Ask a typical SUV driver why he drives such a formidable vehicle, and he’ll invariably insist that it’s for safety reasons—the kids, you know—not because he’s too vain to get behind the wheel of a sissy Ford Windstar. Automakers themselves know otherwise; their own market research tells them so.

But Bradsher makes painfully clear that the belief in SUV safety is a delusion. For decades, automakers seeking to avoid tougher fuel economy standards have invoked the fiction that the bigger the car, the safer the passenger. As a result, most Americans take it on faith that the only way to be safe on the highway is to be driving a tank (or the next best thing, a Hummer). Bradsher shatters this myth and highlights the strange disconnect between the perception and the reality of SUVs.

The occupant death rate in SUVs is 6 percent higher than it is for cars—8 percent higher in the largest SUVs. The main reason is that SUVs carry a high risk of rollover; 62 percent of SUV deaths in 2000 occurred in rollover accidents. SUVs don’t handle well, so drivers can’t respond quickly when the car hits a stretch of uneven pavement or “trips” by scraping a guardrail. Even a small bump in the road is enough to flip an SUV traveling at high speed. On top of that, SUV roofs are not reinforced to protect the occupants against rollover; nor does the government require them to be.

Because of their vehicles’ size and four-wheel drive, SUV drivers tend to overestimate their own security, which prompts many to drive like maniacs, particularly in inclement weather. And SUV drivers—ever image-conscious and overconfident—seem to hate seat belts as much as they love talking on their cell phones while driving. Bradsher reports that four-fifths of those killed in rollovers were not belted in, even though 75 percent of the general driving population now buckles up regularly.

While failing to protect their occupants, SUVs have also made the roads more dangerous for others. The “kill rate,” as Bradsher calls it, for SUVs is simply jaw-dropping. For every one life saved by driving an SUV, five others will be taken. Government researchers have found that a behemoth like the four-ton Chevy Tahoe kills 122 people for every 1 million models on the road; by comparison, the Honda Accord kills only 21. Injuries in SUV-related accidents are likewise more severe.

BRUTE FORCE This Hummer was spotted parked in front of the Chico Chamber of Commerce.

Photo By Tom Angel

Part of the reason for the high kill rate is that cars offer very little protection against an SUV hitting them from the side—not because of the weight, but because of the design. When a car is hit from the side by another car, the victim is 6.6 times as likely to die as the aggressor. But if the aggressor is an SUV, the car driver’s relative chance of dying rises to 30 to 1, because the hood of an SUV is so high off the ground. Rather than hitting the reinforced doors of a car with its bumper, an SUV will slam into more vulnerable areas and strike a car driver in the head or chest, where injuries are more life-threatening.

But before you get an SUV just for defensive purposes, think again. Any safety gains that might accrue are cancelled out by the high risk of rollover deaths, which usually don’t involve other cars.

Ironically, SUVs are particularly dangerous for children, whose safety is often the rationale for buying them in the first place. Because these beasts are so big and hard to see around (and often equipped with dark-tinted glass that’s illegal in cars), SUV drivers have a troubling tendency to run over their own kids. Just recently, in October, a wealthy Long Island doctor made headlines after he ran over and killed his 2-year-old in the driveway with his BMW X5. He told police he thought he’d hit the curb.

To illustrate the kind of selfishness that marks some SUV drivers, Bradsher finds people who rave about how they’ve survived accidents with barely a scratch, yet neglected to mention that the people in the other car were all killed. (One such woman confesses rather chillingly to Bradsher that her first response after killing another driver was to go out and get an even bigger SUV.)

The tragedy of SUVs is that highway fatalities were actually in decline before SUVs came into vogue, even though Americans were driving farther. This is true largely for one simple reason: the seatbelt. Seatbelt usage rose from 14 percent in 1984 to 73 percent in 2001. But seatbelts aren’t much help if you’re sideswiped by an Escalade, a prospect that looms yet more ominously as SUVs enter the used-car market. Not surprisingly, last year, for the first time in a decade, the number of highway deaths actually rose.

No Roads Scholars Here
Bradsher blames government for failing to adequately regulate SUVs but doesn’t fully acknowledge the degree to which it has encouraged SUV production by becoming a major consumer of them. Law enforcement and public-safety agencies in particular seem enamored of the menacing vehicles, a fact on proud display when officers finally apprehended the alleged snipers in the Washington, D.C., area and transported them to the federal courthouse in a parade of black Ford Explorers and Expeditions.

Judging from the number of official SUVs on the road today, law enforcement officials—those most likely to know firsthand the grisly effects of a rollover—are enthusiastic customers. Like the rest of America, police departments seem to believe that replacing safe, sturdy cars with SUVs is a good idea, though it’s hard to imagine a more dangerous vehicle for an officer conducting a high-speed chase.

The cover of the book that reveals the evils of SUVs.

Government’s taste for SUVs isn’t limited to cops and firemen. There’s hardly a city in America where the mayor’s chauffeured Lincoln Town Car hasn’t been replaced by an SUV. In Virginia, where state officials recently discovered that SUVs were wrecking their efforts to meet clean-air regulations, a few noted sheepishly that perhaps local governments should sell their own fleets, which had ballooned to 250 in Fairfax County alone. (A Fairfax County official told The Washington Post that public-safety officials needed four-wheel drive and large cargo spaces to transport extra people and emergency equipment through snow or heavy rain—proof that even law enforcement officials misunderstand SUV safety records.)

As Bradsher details, because of their weight, shoddy brakes and off-road tires, SUVs handle poorly in bad weather and have trouble stopping on slick roads. What’s more, they’re generally so poorly designed as not to be capable of carrying much cargo, despite the space. A contributing factor in the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire debacle was that drivers weren’t told that their Explorers shouldn’t carry any more weight than a Ford Taurus. The extra weight routinely piled in these big cars stressed the tires in a way that made them fall apart faster and contributed to the spate of rollover deaths.

I have a hunch that government officials’ justification for buying SUVs is mostly a ruse for their real motivation, which is the same as any other SUV owner’s: image. Officials can safely load up their fleets with leather-seated SUVs, whereas using taxpayer dollars to buy themselves, say, a fleet of BMW coupes would get them crucified (even though Detroit considers SUVs luxury vehicles and designs them accordingly). Police departments may claim that they need an SUV to accommodate SWAT teams or canine units, but there is no reason that Sparky the drug dog wouldn’t be just as comfortable in the back of a nice safe Chevy Astrovan.

The same is true for nearly everyone who drives an SUV today. Of course, not every SUV owner is gripped by insecurity and a death wish—plenty of otherwise reasonable people seem to get seduced by power and size.

But if soccer moms and office-park dads really need to ferry a lot of people around, they could simply get a large car or a minivan, which Bradsher hails as a great innovation for its fuel efficiency, safety and lower pollution. (And minivans don’t have a disproportionately high kill rate for motorists or pedestrians when they get into accidents.) According to industry market research, minivan drivers also tend to be very nice people. Minivans are favored by senior citizens and others (male and female, equally) who volunteer for their churches and carpool with other people’s kids. But that’s the problem. SUV owners buy them precisely because they don’t want the “soccer mom” stigma associated with minivans.

While Bradsher does a magnificent job of shattering the myths about SUVs, he has a difficult time proposing a solution. Sport utility vehicles have become like guns: Everyone knows they’re dangerous, but you can’t exactly force millions of Americans to give them up overnight. And because the SUV is single-handedly responsible for revitalizing the once-depressed American auto industry, the economy is now so dependent on their production that it would be nearly impossible to get them off the road.

Bradsher suggests regulating SUVs like cars rather than as light trucks, so that they would be forced to comply with fuel-efficiency standards and safety regulations. He also proposes that the insurance industry stop shifting the high costs of the SUV dangers onto car owners by raising premium prices for SUVs to reflect the amount of damage they cause. But these ideas, commendable though they are, fall short of a perfect answer.

Clearly, the best solution would be for Americans to realize the danger of SUVs and simply stop buying them. Social pressure can be a powerful determinant on car choices, as seen in Japan, the one country where SUVs have not caught on because of cultural checks that emphasize the good of the community over that of the individual. There are signs that perhaps public sentiment is beginning to shift against SUV drivers here, too, as activists have begun to leave nasty flyers on SUV windshields berating drivers for fouling the environment and other offenses.

But, for a true reckoning to take place, image-obsessed Americans will need to fully understand the SUV’s true dangers—including to themselves—before they will willingly abandon it to the junkyard. Spreading that message against the nation’s biggest advertiser—the auto industry—will be tough work. Drivers can only hope that Bradsher’s book will cut through the chatter.

Stephanie Mencimer is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.