Tangible Proof of Evil

Here's the scenario: My partner and I are in his car; he's driving. We're in the left lane of a city road. In the right lane, just ahead of us, a bus. The bus slows down, stops to let people off. Behind the bus, a white SUV. The SUV driver does not like waiting. She wants to pass the bus. She gets into the left lane.

Does she look? No. And that, of course, is where we are.

Here's the approximate conversation we had when we all pulled over after the accident:

SUV Driver: "Oh hey, sorry. I just didn't see you guys - were you behind me?"

My Boy: "Yeah. We were."

SUVD: "Well, it doesn't look that bad - just call my insurance agent. He's really good about things like this. My husband just hit someone last week and it was no problem getting the claim settled. Our agent's used to this."

My Boy and I: Stunned silence.

SUVD's teenage daughter has walked off and is on her cell phone, looking upset.

SUVD: "She's really upset by this. She's just so sensitive. I keep telling her it's ok, but she's just upset."

My Boy and I: "Uh...yeah..."

As it turns out, although the damage didn't initially look too bad, our car was totaled - repairs will cost more than the car itself. So now we're looking for a new (used) car, while SUVD blithely goes about her business and, presumably, keeps on blithely causing accidents.

The conversation utterly shocked me, though, and not just because I've never heard, or heard of, anyone at the scene of an accident being that up front about making a habit out of getting into accidents. And it's not just her - apparently, it's her husband too. Meanwhile, the daughter, who seemed to me to have an utterly reasonable response to the event, gets branded sensitive and moody because a car accident upsets her. What really shocked me - although perhaps it shouldn't have - was that in SUVD's world, accidents are just no big deal. Sure, my partner needs a new car and has to deal with all kinds of hassle - but hey, it's no skin off SUV-D's nose. Apparently, she has unlimited funds for insurance payments, and she just really doesn't care what happens when she changes lanes.

And this is the problem with SUVs, and with other vehicles their size and larger: they seem to breed irresponsible driving. Marketing campaigns take care to point out how safe they are. You're driving a tank - so you don't need to pay attention.

Now, there are a few folks who actually need an SUV or similar vehicle because they live out in the country. Those folks are a tiny minority, and they're not the ones I'm talking about here. The SUV drivers I worry about are the ones who buy their vehicles because they want to drive their kids to school and the mall in as close as they can come to a tank. SUVs are supposed to be "off-road vehicles," but they seem to be dominating the roads these days. And most SUV drivers own one not because they need one but because they like the sense of power and invulnerability it gives them. They're really safe, right?

Right. SUVs are safe - if you're inside one (and some studies even question that). For everyone else on the road, those people not driving SUVs or other extraordinarily large vehicles, they're extraordinarily unsafe.

My partner and I got lucky this time - the SUV was going slow, and although our car was totaled and I had whiplash, there were no major injuries. But if the SUV had been going a bit faster, or had hit us on the passenger door instead of in the back of the car, I doubt we'd be so lucky. For one, the bumper was about the height of my window. At the wrong speed and angle, it would've done serious damage that I'd rather not think too specifically about. A normal car, even one with an irresponsible driver, does not pose the same kind of danger. In a head-on collision, that SUV would've taken our Ford Escort out, and most likely us with it. It's not that head-on collisions between two cars aren't dangerous, but the likelihood of serious injury is exponentially increased when one of the vehicles outweighs and outsizes the other car to that degree.

And I'd say the highly-touted safety of SUVs is actually a liability for the rest of us, because it seems to make their drivers more careless. After all, if you can't get hurt, why be careful? Why bother looking when you need to change lanes? I can't tell you how many times I've had to use the ol' defensive driving skills because some guy in an SUV decided he wanted to be where I was, and drove as if it was my responsibility to get out of his way rather than his to look out where he's going.

But that, of course, is the hallmark of the sub/urban SUV driver: lack of concern for anyone but themselves. In essence, what an SUV says is: "Fuck you. I know that if we get into an accident, I could quite likely kill you - but hey, whatever, at least I'll be safe. And sure, I know the country and in fact the world have big-time energy concerns - but hey, whatever, I'm going to guzzle gas like there's no tomorrow. Go on, whine about your safety, or the environment, but hey, whatever - you can't stop me in your little sedan. So fuck you. I only care about me."

Of course, one could argue that this is precisely the spirit of the United States - that as a country, the U.S. pretty much tells everyone else to fuck off - it's going to do as it pleases, emissions controls, other people's democratic elections, or fair labor laws be damned. And that comparison probably wouldn't be so far off, and might go a long way toward explaining why SUVs are far more popular in the U.S. than anywhere else.

But still - it's no excuse. There is no excuse for behavior like that. And it needs to change. For starters, Congress needs to get off its money-grubbing ass and pass legislation mandating a standard bumper height for all vehicles. That's just plain common sense - it doesn't take Einstein to see that would reduce damage in many accidents - bumpers were designed to absorb shock and minimize damage, after all, so why not ensure that bumper heights are the same? (And according to "60 Minutes," auto industry officials say this wouldn't even be much of a problem to implement!) And then we need to set a maximum size for vehicles allowed to travel on city roads. If an 18-wheeler can't drive through central Austin, why in the world should we let a Humvee do it (and yes, they're now being marketed as the next step up from the SUV) - it's wider and therefore at least as likely to cause traffic chaos. And we need a tax - yes, a tax - on cars that guzzle up resources and spit out pollution like these do. Someone's going to have to clean up after these folks eventually, and they need to help out, whether they want to or not. And sure, waive that tax for people who, because they live out where there are no paved roads, might actually need a tough, off-road kind of vehicle - but for those suburb and city folks who just want it because it makes them feel all rugged, tax their asses. (Unless of course you prefer a friend's suggestion that you "line up all the SUV drivers and run over them with their own cars.") Create disincentives to buy and drive these things. And stop the escalation, where folks are now buying SUVs because all the SUVs around them on the street have got them scared. Putting more SUVs on the road is not the answer. We need less - or, better yet, none.

Aw, say the soft-hearted, why not try education instead? Because education presumes that people don't know these things, and more importantly, that if they knew, they would care. And I don't think most of them would. Hitting their own wallet, decreasing their own mobility - that's the only way to touch people who just don't give a damn about anyone else.

I saw a bumper sticker on a car in front of me the other day: "SUVs are tangible proof of evil."

I wouldn't disagree.


Online Fun with SUVs

(Some of these are also linked from the column on the left)

"Driving up the Heat: SUVs and Global Warming." From the Sierra Club. "Switching from driving an average car to a 13mpg SUV for one year would waste more energy than if you...Left your refrigerator door open for 6 years - Left your bathroom light burning for 30 years or - Left your color television turned on for 28 years."

"The Bully on the Block." Salon.com article on the dangers of SUVs to drivers of other cars: "Sport Utility Vehicles are taking an ever greater toll on smaller cars -- and killing the people who drive them."

Friends don't let friends drive SUVs. From the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce. "A sport utility vehicle consumes about one third more gasoline per mile, and puts out one third more carbon dioxide, than the typical car. Carbon dioxide, of course, is harmless to breathe, but it is the main greenhouse gas that is destabilizing our climate and threatening to disrupt ecosystems, economies and human health around the world."

"The SUV-Terrorism Connection." From Alternet.org. OK, inflammatory title - but here's one to print out and tape to every SUV sporting a US flag. If you want the US less dependent on foreign oil, you'd better start thinking about fuel consumption - especially for those 14-mile-a-gallon SUVs.

Magnitude Motors Presents the All-New Godzilla SUV! "Dangerous. Gigantic. Wasteful. Just what you're looking for!... Because when you think about it, who do you really care about? Yourself, perhaps your loved ones. Everyone else is just in the way. When you're driving the Godzilla, they will run for cover. And if they don't? Well, it's not like they weren't warned."

Fuel economy ratings. Government-sponsored site with fuel economy ratings for a wide variety of new and used vehicles.





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May 15, 2002

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