Hummer Embraces Definition Of Conspicuous Consumption Questions

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I’m working on a economics question and need an explanation and answer to help me learn.

Sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, have been part of the US automotive market since the introduction of the Chevrolet Suburban in 1935. SUVs gained some in popularity in the late 1940’s, with the introduction of the Jeep and the Land Rover. The market for SUVs exploded in the 1990’s. One reason was the “domestication” of the vehicles, as they became more like cars in their performance and comfort. In addition, before 2007 SUVs were not included in the same category with cars for the purpose of calculating manufacturers’ overall corporate average fuel economy (CAFE). Today, light trucks and SUVs account for 77% of the US market. With this trend in mind, Ford has announced it will be phasing out all but two cars in its North American portfolio, shifting its emphasis to light trucks and SUVs.The ascendance of SUVs involves many issues that interest economists, such as: externalities, discounting and forecasting, prisoner’s dilemma, availability bias, conspicuous consumption, and peer pressure.Please address the following questions:From the point of view of buyers, in what ways was it rational to buy an SUV instead of a car?In what ways was it irrational?From the point of view of society, have market forces led to an optimal level of SUV sales?Are there actions the government could take that would lead to a more optimal outcome?

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Hummer Embraces Definition Of Conspicuous Consumption
By Joseph B. White
March 24, 2003
Are you worried about high gas prices? Nervous about what other people would think if you
bought a hulking sport utility vehicle right now? Are you anxious about the war in Iraq, or think
this is hardly a time to be promoting a vehicle that spells CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION in
all capital letters?
Then you’re not a potential Hummer H2 owner. Which doesn’t bother the people at Hummer, or
their supremely self-assured customers one bit.
When historians of American popular culture get around to assessing our times, the Hummer H2
will deserve at least a footnote. Few automobiles since the legendary fin-tailed Cadillacs of the
1950s have so proudly proclaimed that side of the American personality that tells the world,
“We’ve got it, we’re going to flaunt it, and we don’t care what the French think about it.”
The H2 has been a smashing success for General Motors Corp., which has taken its lumps in
recent years for designing too many vehicles that don’t capture the popular imagination or
command premium prices. The H2 does both. In a little more than a year on the market, the H2
has vaulted to No. 1 in sales among large, luxury SUVs, ahead of the Lincoln Navigator and the
Land Rover Range Rover, among others. H2 sales dipped 5% in February compared to January,
but Hummer dealers still have a relatively lean 38 days’ supply in stock. GM doesn’t report
Hummer division profits, but it’s a good bet that GM could earn more selling 40,000 or so
Hummers a year than it does selling a million of its small and midsized cars.
Still, these are tricky times for marketers of big SUVs. The economy is wobbly. Nominal gasoline
prices are as high as they have been in years. For Hummer there’s the extra issue of how
television viewers will react to watching military Humvees — GM sells the civilian versions of
these as “H1s”– maneuvering in hostile deserts one minute, and in the next see an irreverent
advertisement for the H2.
“We recognize our heritage with the H1,” says Liz Vanzura, director of advertising for Hummer
and one of the key architects of the H2’s ascent as a popular culture icon. But in light of the war,
she says, Hummer will be “highly sensitive and react very respectfully.”
That means that GM and Hummer will be careful in the near term about where they promote the
H2 and how, says Ms. Vanzura, who before joining Hummer had a big hand in crafting
Volkswagen’s highly successful late 1990s advertising. When we spoke on Friday, Ms. Vanzura
said Hummer’s advertising agencies were monitoring war coverage on CNN and other networks
“minute by minute.” GM’s policy is that when CNN goes to around the clock, exclusively war
coverage, GM’s divisions will park their ads until the dust settles.
But Ms. Vanzura said that as of Friday, Hummer planned to stay the course with its advertising.
That includes going ahead with a new campaign around NCAA basketball tournament coverage.
Hummer has created some new, “a little bit more edgy” ads to appeal to the basketball audience.
She described them as “be your own dog type of spots,” that play up the H2’s image as a vehicle
for individualists and free spirits. One, she said, will show the H2 bounding around to a rock and
roll beat, with superimposed good conduct maxims, such as “eat your vegetables,” that it’s
understood H2 owners scorn. The tag line: “Hummer. Like Nothing Else.”
Indeed, the H2 is like nothing else, which is why it aggravates people on the other end of the
political and social spectrum from meat-eating H2 aspirants. The H2 comes with a 32-gallon gas
tank for a good reason. GM doesn’t officially publish a fuel economy rating. That’s because the
6,400 pound truck is classified as a medium duty truck, and is thus off the regulatory radar.
At a time when questions about American dependency on foreign oil are back in the news, it’s
tempting to ask which vehicle will win the battle for supremacy among the trendsetters: The
Hummer, or gas-electric hybrid cars like the Honda Civic hybrid or the Toyota Prius. This is
America. The answer could be both.
Ms. Vanzura says she gets asked a lot about whether she’s worried by $2 a gallon gas — and she
has an answer. “There’s a certain type of person who’s very much attracted to a truck that’s very
differentiated, and aspirational and costs $55,000,” she says. These are people, she says, who buy
expensive jewelry, have a yacht here and there, a house in Aspen and “pretty much make their
own decisions.”
In other words, the H2 isn’t for everybody, it’s just for the people who want it, can afford it and
are comfortable indulging themselves with the fruits of their success. GM figures that’s about
40,000 people a year — which isn’t that many against overall U.S. vehicle sales of 16 plus million
a year. “We’ll put our product out there and see what happens,” Ms. Vanzura says.
Some day, gas prices, tougher fuel economy regulations or, more likely, the changing tides of
fashion, could relegate the H2 to the automotive boneyard next to those tall-tailed Caddys.
But rich Americans have always liked things big and bold, and Hummer caters to that cultural
reality in a way few other American vehicles do.
And for those Hummer fans who do worry about fuel efficiency, Hummer dealers now carry a
product even Greenpeace could love: The Hummer Tactical Mountain Bike, made of aircraft
aluminum and patterned after bicycles that are used by the military. At a list price of $795, it may
be the best opportunity most of us ever get to own a Hummer.
“Hummer Embraces Definition Of Conspicuous Consumption”
Page 2
Big and Bad
How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety
By Malcolm Gladwell
January 12, 2003
In the summer of 1998, the Ford Motor Company began building the Expedition, its new, fullsized S.U.V., at the Michigan Truck Plant, in the Detroit suburb of Wayne. The Expedition was
essentially the F-150 pickup truck with an extra set of doors and two more rows of seats—and the
fact that it was a truck was critical. Cars have to meet stringent fuel-efficiency regulations. Trucks
don’t. The handling and suspension and braking of cars have to be built to the demanding
standard of drivers and passengers. Trucks only have to handle like, well, trucks. Cars are built
with what is called unit-body construction. To be light enough to meet fuel standards and safe
enough to meet safety standards, they have expensive and elaborately engineered steel skeletons,
with built-in crumple zones to absorb the impact of a crash. Making a truck is a lot more
rudimentary. You build a rectangular steel frame. The engine gets bolted to the front. The seats
get bolted to the middle. The body gets lowered over the top. The result is heavy and rigid and
not particularly safe. But it’s an awfully inexpensive way to build an automobile. Ford had
planned to sell the Expedition for thirty-six thousand dollars, and its bests estimate was that it
could build one for twenty-four thousand.—which, in the automotive industry, is a terrifically
high profit margin. Sales, the company predicted, weren’t going to be huge. After all, how many
Americans could reasonably be expected to pay a twelve-thousand dollar premium for what was
essentially a dressed-up truck? But Ford executives decided that the Expedition would be a highly
profitable niche product. They were half right. The “highly profitable” part turned out to be true.
Yet, almost from the moment Ford’s big new S.U.V.s rolled off the assembly line in Wayne,
there was nothing “niche” about the Expedition.
Ford had intended to split the assembly line at the Michigan Truck Plant between the Expedition
and the Ford F-150 pickup. But, when the first flood of orders started coming in for the
Expedition, the factory was entirely given over to S.U.V.s. The orders kept mounting. Assemblyline workers were put on sixty- and seventy-hour weeks. Another night shift was added. The plant
was now running twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. Ford executives decided to build a
luxury version of the Expedition, the Lincoln Navigator. The bolted a new grille on the
Expedition, changed a few body panels, added some sound insulation, took a deep breath, and
charged forty-five thousand dollars—and soon Navigators were flying out the door nearly as fast
as Expeditions. Before long, the Michigan Truck Plant was the most profitable of Ford’s fiftythree assembly plants. By the late nineteen-nineties, it had become the most profitable factory of
any industry in the world. In 1998, the Michigan Truck Plant grossed eleven billion dollars,
almost as much as McDonald’s made that year. Profits were $3.7 billion. Some factory workers,
with overtime, were making two hundred thousand dollars a year. The demand for Expeditions
and Navigators was so insatiable that even when a blizzard hit the Detroit region in January of
1999—burying the city in snow, paralyzing the airport, and stranding hundreds of cars on the
freeway—Ford officials got on their radios and commandeered parts bound for other factories so
that the Michigan Truck Plant assembly line wouldn’t slow for a moment. The factory that had
begun as just another assembly plant had become the company’s crown jewel.
In the history of the automotive industry, few things have been quite as unexpected as the rise of
the S.U.V. Detroit is a town of engineers, and engineers like to believe that there is some
connection between the success of a vehicle and its technical merits. But the S.U.V. boom was
like Apple’s bringing back the Macintosh, dressing it up in colorful plastic, and suddenly creating
a new market. It made no sense to them. Consumers said they liked four-wheel drive. But the
overwhelming majority of consumers don’t need four-wheel drive. S.U.V. buyers said they liked
the elevated driving position. But when, in focus groups, industry marketers probed further, they
heard things that left them rolling their eyes. As Keith Bradsher writes in “High and Mighty”—
perhaps the most important book about Detroit since Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed”—
what consumers said was “If the vehicle is up high, it’s easier to see if something is hiding
underneath or lurking behind it.” Bradsher brilliantly captures the mixture of bafflement and
contempt that many auto executive feel toward the customers who buy their S.U.V.s. Fred J.
Schaafsma, a top engineer for General Motors, says, “Sport-utility owners tend to be more like ‘I
wonder how people view me,’ and are more willing to trade off flexibility of functionality to get
that.” According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be
bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently
nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills. Ford’s S.U.V.
designers took their cues from seeing “fashionably dressed women wearing hiking hoots or even
work boots while walking through expensive malls.” Toyota’s top marketing executive in the
United States, Bradsher writes, loves to tell the tory of how at a focus group in Los Angeles, “an
elegant woman in the group said that she needed her full-sized Lexus LX 470 to drive up over the
curb and onto lawns to park at large parties in Beverly Hills.” One of Ford’s senior marketing
executives was even blunter: “The only time those S.U.V.s are going to be off-road is when they
miss the driveway at 3 A.M.”
The truth, underneath all the rationalizations, seemed to be that S.U.V. buyers thought of big,
heavy vehicles as safe: they found comfort in being surrounded by so much rubber and steel. To
the engineers, of course, that didn’t make any sense, either: if consumers really wanted something
that was big and heavy and comforting, they ought to by minivans, since minivans, with their
unit-body construction, do much better in accidents and S.U.V.s. (In a thirty-five-m.p.h. crash
test, for instance, the driver of a Cadillac Escalade—the G.M. counterpart to the Lincoln
Navigator—has a sixteen percent chance of a life-threatening head injury, a twenty-per-cent
chance of a life-threatening chest injury, and a thirty-five-per-cent chance of a leg injury. The
same numbers in a Ford Windstar minivan—a vehicle engineered from the ground up, as opposed
to simply being bolted onto a pickup-truck frame—are, respectively, two per cent, four per cent,
and one per cent.) But this desire for safety wasn’t a rational calculation. It was a feeling. Over
the past decade, a number of major automakers in America have relied on the services of a
French-born cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, whose specialty is getting beyond the
“Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety”
Page 2
rational—what he calls “cortex”—impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper,
“reptilian” responses. And what Rapaille concluded from countless, intensive sessions with car
buyers was that when S.U.V. buyers thought about safety they were thinking about something
that reached into their deepest unconscious. “The No.1 feeling is that everything surrounding you
should be round and soft, and should give,” Rapaille told me. “There should be air bags
everywhere. Then there’s this notion that need to be up high. That’s a contradiction, because the
people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance
of a rollover. But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I’m safer. You feel
secure because you are higher and dominate and look down. That you can look down is
psychologically a very powerful notion. And what was the key element of safety when you were
a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cupholders are
absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe. If I can put my
coffee there, if I can have my food, if everything is round, if it’s soft, and if I’m high, then I feel
safe. It’s amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will
look at is how many cupholders it has.” During the design of the Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, one of
the things Rapaille learned was that car buyers felt unsafe when they thought that an outsider
could easily see inside their vehicles. So Chrysler made the back window of the PT Cruiser
smaller. Of course, making windows smaller—and thereby reducing visibility—makes driving
more dangerous, not less so. But that’s what has happened to the automobile world: feeling safe
has become more important than actually being safe.
One day this fall, I visited the automobile-testing center of Consumers Union, the organization
that publishes Consumer Reports. It is tucked away in the woods, in south-central Connecticut, on
the site of the old Connecticut Speedway. The facility has two skid pads to measure cornering, a
long straightaway for braking tests, a meandering “handling” course that winds around the back
side of the track, and an accident-avoidance obstacle course made out of row of orange cones. It
is headed by a trim, white-haired Englishman named David Champion, who previously worked as
an engineer with Land Rover and with Nissan. On the day of my visit, Champion set aside two
vehicles: a silver 2003 Chevrolet TrailBlazer—and enormous five-thousand-pound S.U.V.—and
a shiny blue two-seater Porsche Boxster convertible.
We started with the TrailBlazer. Champion wared up the Chevrolet with a few quick circuits of
the track, and then drove it hard through the twists and turns of the handling course. He sat in the
bucket seat with his back straight and his arms almost fully extended, and drove with practiced
grace: every movement smooth and relaxed and unhurried. Champion, as an engineer, did not
much like the TrailBlazer. “Cheap interior, cheap plastic,” he said, batting the dashboard with his
hand. “It’s a little be heavy, cumbersome. Quiet. Bit wallowy, side to side. Doesn’t feel that
secure. Accelerates heavily. Once it gets going, it’s got decent power. Brakes feel a bit spongy.”
He turned onto the straightaway and stopped a few hundred yards from the obstacle course.
Measuring accident avoidance is a key part of the Consumers Union evaluation. It’s a simple
setup. The driver has to navigate his vehicle through two rows of cones eight feet wide and sixty
feet long. Then he has to steer hard to the left, guiding the vehicle through a gate set off to the
side, and immediately swerve hard back to the right, and enter a second sixty-foot corridor of
“Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety”
Page 3
cones that are parallel to the first set. The idea is to see how fast you can drive through the course
without knocking over any cones. “It’s like you’re driving down a road in suburbia,” Champion
said. “Suddenly, a kid on a bicycle veers out in front of you. You have to do whatever it takes to
avoid the kid. But there’s a tractor-trailer coming toward you in the other lane, so you’ve got to
swing back into your own lane as quickly as possible. That’s the scenario.”
Champion and I put on helmets. He accelerated toward the entrance to the obstacle course. “We
do the test without brakes or throttle, so we can just look at handling,” Champion said. “I actually
take my foot right off the pedals.” The car was now moving at forth m.p.h. At that speed, on the
smooth tarmac of the raceway, the TrailBlazer was very quiet, and we were seated so high that
the road seemed somehow remote. Champion entered the first row of cones. His arms tensed. He
jerked the car to the left. The TrailBlazer’s tires squealed. I was thrown toward the passenger-side
door as the truck’s body rolled, then thrown toward Champion as he jerked the TrailBlazer back
to the right. My tape recorder went skittering across the cabin. The whole maneuver had taken no
more than a few seconds, but it felt as if we had been sailing into a squall. Champion brought the
car to a stop. We both looked back: the TrailBlazer had hit the cone at the gate. The kid on the
bicycle was probably dead. Champion shook his head. “It’s very rubbery. It slides a lot. I’m not
getting much communication back from the steering wheel. It feels really ponderous, clumsy. I
felt a little bit of tail swing.”
I drove the obstacle course next. I started at the conservative speed of thirty-five m.p.h. I got
through cleanly. I tried again, this time at thirty-eight m.p.h., and that small increment of speed
made a dramatic difference. I made the first left, avoiding the kid on the bicycle. But, when it
came time to swerve back to avoid the hypothetical oncoming eighteen-wheeler, I found that I
was wrestling with the car. The protests of the tires were jarring. I stopped, shaken. “It wasn’t
going where you wanted it to go, was it?” Champion said. “Did you feel the weight pulling you
sideways? That’s what the extra weight that S.U.V.s have tends to do. It pulls you in the wrong
direction.” Behind us was a string of toppled cones. Getting the TrailBlazer to travel in a straight
line, after that sudden diversion, hadn’t been easy. “I think you took out a few pedestrians,”
Champion said with a faint smile.
Next up was the Boxster. The top was down. The sun was warm on my forehead. The car was
low to the ground; I had the sense that if I dangled my arm out the window my knuckles would
scrape on the tarmac. Standing still, the Boxster didn’t feel safe: I could have been sitting in a gocart. But when I ran it through the handling course I felt that I was in perfect control. On the
straightaway, I steadied the Boxster at forty-five m.p.h., and ran it through the obstacle course. I
could have balanced a teacup on my knee. At fifty m.p.h., I navigated the left and right turns with
what seemed like a twitch of the steering wheel. The tires didn’t squeal. The car stayed level. I
pushed the Porsche up in to the mid-fifties. Every cone was untouched. “Walk in the park!”
Champion exclaimed as we pulled to a stop.
Most of us think that S.U.V.s are much safer than sports cars. If you asked the young parents of
America whether they would rather strap their infant child in the back seat of the TrailBlazer or
the passenger seat of the Boxster, they would choose the TrailBlazer. We feel that way because in
the TrailBlazer our chances of surviving a collision with a hypothetical tractor-trailer in the other
“Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety”
Page 4
lane are greater than they are in the Porsche. What we forget, though, is that in the TrailBlazer
you’re also much more likely to hit the tractor-trailer because you can’t get out the way in time.
In the parlance of the automobile world, the TrailBlazer is better at “passive safety.” The Boxster
is better when it comes to “active safety,” which is every bit as important. Consider the set of
safety statistics compiled by Tom Wenzel, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory,
in California, and Marc Ross, a physicist at the University of Michigan. The numbers are
expressed in fatalities per million cars, both for drivers of particular models and the drivers of the
cars they hit. (For example, in the first case, for every million Toyota Avalons on the road, forty
Avalon drivers die in car accidents every year, and twenty people die in accidents involving
Toyota Avalons.) The numbers below have been rounded:
Make / Model
Type
Toyota Avalon
Chrysler
Town & Country
Toyota Camry
Volkswagen Jetta
Ford Windstar
Nissan Maxima
Honda Accord
Chevrolet Venture
Buick Century
Subaru
Legacy/Outback
Mazda 626
Chevrolet Malibu
Chevrolet Suburban
Jeep
Grand Cherokee
Honda Civic
Toyota Corolla
Ford Expedition
GMC Jimmy
Ford Taurus
Nissan Altima
Mercury Marquis
Nissan Sentra
Toyota 4Runner
Chevrolet Tahoe
Dodge Stratus
Lincoln Town Car
Ford Explorer
Pontiac Grand Am
Toyota Tacoma
Chevrolet Cavalier
Dodge Neon
Pontiac Sunfire
Ford F-Series
Toyota Avalon
large
Driver Other
Deaths Deaths
40
20
Total
60
minivan
mid-size
subcompact
minivan
mid-size
mid-size
minivan
mid-size
31
41
47
37
53
54
51
70
36
29
23
35
26
27
34
23
67
70
70
72
79
82
85
93
compact
compact
mid-size
S.U.V
74
70
71
46
24
29
34
59
98
99
105
105
S.U.V
subcompact
subcompact
S.U.V
S.U.V
mid-size
compact
large
subcompact
S.U.V
S.U.V
mid-size
large
S.U.V
compact
pickup
subcompact
subcompact
subcompact
pickup
large
61
84
81
55
76
78
72
80
95
94
68
103
100
88
118
111
146
161
158
110
40
44
25
29
57
39
39
49
43
34
43
74
40
47
60
39
59
41
39
44
128
20
106
109
110
112
114
117
121
123
129
137
142
143
147
148
157
171
186
199
202
238
60
“Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety”
Page 5
Are the best performers the biggest and heaviest vehicles on the road? Not at all. Among the
safest cars are the midsize imports, like the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord. Or consider the
extraordinary performance of some subcompacts, like the Volkswagen Jetta. Drivers of the tiny
Jetta die at a rate of just forty-seven per million, which is in the same range as drivers of the fivethousand pound Chevrolet Suburban and almost half that of popular S.U.V. models like the Ford
Explorer or the GMC Jimmy. In a head-on crash, an Explorer or a Suburban would crush a Jetta
or a Camry. But, clearly, the drivers of Camrys and Jettas are finding a way to avoid head-on
crashes with Explorers and Suburbans. The benefits of being nimble—of being in an automobile
that’s capable of staying out of trouble—are in many cases greater than the benefits of being big.
I had another lesson in active safety at the test track when I got in the TrailBlazer with another
Consumers Union engineer, and we did three emergency-stopping tests, taking the Chevrolet up
to sixty m.p.h.. and then slamming on the brakes. It was not a pleasant exercise. Bringing five
thousand pounds of rubber and steel to a sudden stop involves lots of lurching, screeching, and
protesting. The first time, the TrailBlazer took 146.2 feet to come to a halt, the second time 151.6
feet, and the third time 153.4 feet. The Boxster can come to a complete stop from sixty m.p.h. in
about 124 feet. That’s a difference of about two car lengths, and it isn’t hard to imagine any
number of scenarios where two car lengths could mean the difference between life and death.
The S.U.V. boom represents, then, a shift in how we conceive of safety—from active to passive.
It’s what happens when a larger number of drivers conclude, consciously or otherwise, that the
extra thirty feet that the TrailBlazer takes to come to a stop doesn’t really matter, that the tractortrailer will hit them anyway, and that they are better off treating accidents as inevitable rather
than avoidable. “The metric that people use is size,” says Stephen Popiel, a vice-president of
Millward Brown Goldfarb, in Toronto, one of the leading automotive market-research firms.
“The bigger something is, the safer it is. In the consumer’s mind, the basic equation is, If I were
to take this vehicle and drive it into this brick wall, the more metal there is in front of me the
better off I’ll be.”
This is a new idea, and one largely confined to North America. In Europe and Japan, people think
of a safe car as a nimble car. That’s why they build cars like the Jetta and the Camry, which are
designed to carry out the driver’s wishes as directly and efficiently as possible. In the Jetta, the
engine is clearly audible. The steering is light and precise. The brakes are crisp. The wheelbase is
short enough that the car picks up the undulations of the road. The car is so small and close to the
ground, and so dwarfed by other cars on the road, that an intelligent driver is constantly reminded
of the necessity of driving safely and defensively. An S.U.V embodies the opposite logic. The
driver is seated as high and far from the road as possible. The vehicle is designed to overcome its
environment, not to respond to it. Even four-wheel drive, seemingly the most beneficial feature of
the S.U.V., serves to reinforce this isolation. Having the engine provide power to all four wheels,
safety experts point out, does nothing to improve braking, although many S.U.V. owners
erroneously believe this to be the case. Nor does the feature necessarily make it safer to turn
across a slippery surface: that is largely a function of how much friction is generated by the
vehicle’s tire. All it really does is improve what engineers call tracking—that is, the ability to
accelerate without slipping in perilous conditions or in deep snow or mud. Champion says that
“Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety”
Page 6
one of the occasions when he came closest to death was a snowy day, many years ago, just after
he had bought a new Range Rover. “Everyone around me was slipping, and I was thinking
Yeahhh. And I came to a stop sign on a major road, and I was driving probably twice as fast as I
should have been, because I could. I had traction. But I also weighed probably twice as much as
most cars. And I still had only four brakes and four tires on the road. I slid right across a four-lane
road.” Four-wheel drive robs the driver of feedback. “The car driver whose wheels spin once or
twice while backing out of the driveway knows that the road is slippery,” Bradsher writes. “The
SUV driver who navigates the driveway and street without difficulty until she tries to brake may
not find out that the road is slippery until it is too late.” Jetta are safe because they make their
drivers feel unsafe. S.U.V.s are unsafe because they make their drivers feel safe. That feeling of
safety isn’t the solution; it’s the problem.
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of S.U.V. culture is its attitude toward risk. “Safety, for
most automotive consumers, has to do with the notion that they aren’t in complete control,”
Popiel says. “There are unexpected events that at any moment in time can come out and impact
them—an oil patch up ahead, an eighteen-wheeler turning over, something falling down. People
feel that the elements of the world out of their control are the ones that are going to cause them
distress.”
Of course, those things really aren’t outside a driver’s control: an alert driver, in the right kind of
vehicle, can navigate the oil patch, avoid the truck, and swerve around the thing that’s falling
down. Traffic-fatality rates vary strongly with driver behavior. Drunks are 7.6 times more likely
to die in accidents than non-drinkers. People who wear their seat belts are almost half as likely to
dies as those who don’t buckle up. Forty-year-olds are ten times less likely to get into accidents
than sixteen-year-olds. Drivers of minivans, Wenzel and Ross’s statistics tell us, die at a fraction
of the rate of drivers of pickup trucks. That’s clearly because minivans are family cars, and
parents with children in the back sear are less likely to get into accidents. Frank McKenna, a
safety expert at the University of Reading, in England, has done experiments where he shows
drivers a series of videotaped scenarios—a child running out the front door of this house and onto
the street, for example, or a car approaching an intersection at too great a speed to stop at the red
light—and asks people to press a button the minute they become aware of the potential for an
accident. Experienced drivers press the button between half a second and second faster than new
drivers, which, given that car accidents are events measured in milliseconds, is a significant
difference. McKenna’s work shows that, with experience, we all learn how to exert some degree
of control over what might otherwise appear to he uncontrollable events. Any conception of
safety that revolves entirely around the vehicle, then, is incomplete. Is the Boxster safer than the
TrailBlazer? It depends on who’s behind the wheel. In the hands of, say, my very respectable and
prudent middle-aged mother, the Boxster is by far the safer car. In my hands, it probably isn’t. On
the open road, my reaction to the Porsche’s extraordinary road manners and the sweet, irresistible
wail of its engine would be to drive much faster than I should. (At the end of my day at
Consumers Union, I parked the Boxster, and immediately got into my own car to drive home. In
my mind, I was still at the wheel of the Boxster. Within twenty minutes, I had a two-hundredand-seventy-one dollar speeding ticket.) The trouble with the S.U.V. ascendancy is that it
excludes the really critical component of safety: the driver.
“Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety”
Page 7
In psychology, there is a concept called learned helplessness, which arose from a series of animal
experiments in the nineteen-sixties at the University of Pennsylvania. Dogs were restrained by a
harness, so that they couldn’t move, and then repeatedly subjected to a series of electrical shocks.
Then the same dogs were shocked again, only this time they could easily escape by jumping over
a low hurdle. But most of them didn’t; they just huddled in the corner, no longer believing that
there was anything they could do to