The Right Coast

February 20, 2004
What people really care about
By Tom Smith

I have gotten more email about my SUV posts than any other posts I have written. They have been mostly pro SUV, but there have been some notable anti-SUV messages as well. We Americans care about our vehicles.

A little clarification may be in order as to the sentiments I meant to express. I am not saying that overall, from a societal point of view, big SUVs are safer or as safe as cars. I know they do more damage to those they hit than do small cars. In that sense (though not necessarily in the sense of who is at fault) SUVs cause more deaths than do at least some smaller cars. I am also aware, even impressed, by how much mayhem is caused by large pickups, which are off the charts almost in the number of deaths which accidents they are involved in cause, relative to small cars. I also can see that it is plausible that people who drive SUVs and pickups may be worse drivers on average than people who drive, say, minivans, and that this may well be part of the explanation for the high fatalities of the former (and low fatalities in the latter).

But all of this misses my main point. I am a very safe driver. I haven't had a moving violation in 20 years or more, I've never been in a serious accident or any kind of accident since high school, and my attitude on the road goes beyond driving defensively to driving in the grip of paranoia. If you saw how people drive in San Diego, you would see why. My point is that it is safest for me to be in a big SUV. And I am not one of those beer swilling, Yahoo shouting idiots in a huge pickup truck. As with guns, it is not a justification to take away from a responsible citizen some useful and beneficial tool, such as an SUV or a gun, that some bad or careless people misuse those same tools. It is fine with me if big SUV drivers have to prove they have never applied lipstick while merging lanes, are capable of getting through a week without consuming a case of beer, and can spell their own names. That would eliminate many pickup and SUV drivers in my part of the county and that would be fine with me. But just because lots of drivers are careless idiots is no reason to burden the use of the thing among people who drive (or shoot) carefully. In the case of SUVs, that would be putting my family at risk in order to control behavior that should be addressed more directly, for example, by better enforcement of speeding and traffic laws generally, which are widely ignored as far as I can see in San Diego and probably in many places, or even by requiring a higher grade of license to drive a really big SUV or pickup.

Wanting to just force manufacturers and consumers to make and buy smaller vehicles is similar in a way to insurance regulation that has the effect of not allowing insurers to charge lower premiums to lower risk insureds. People ought to be able to take advantage of their good behavior, for example by driving a truck, such as a big SUV, which is safer for them if they know how to drive it, and does not pose an unacceptable risk to others, again, if driven properly. The analogy to guns is close. If you know how to store it and use it properly, of course having a gun makes your home more secure. The fact that some idiots leave their guns about so their kids can take them to school, is part of the case against being an idiot, not against guns. It is a serious offense to leave a gun somewhere where a child can get to it in California, and I have no big problem with that law. At least it is better than a paternalism that does not distinguish between those who need it and those who don't, which deprives the latter of ability to benefit from their own skills and good habits. So, by all means take big trucks away from people who can't drive them, ban cell phone use and make up application while driving, put more CHiPs on the roads, throw the book at drunk drivers, allow insurance companies to charge risk adjusted premiums and generally make life miserable for careless, fast, and stupid drivers. That leaves me with my great big SUV and fewer of them on the road in the wrong hands that I need to worry about, and I am happy.
UPDATE: My brother informs me it is "chippies" not "CHiPs." I actually have heard California Highway Patrol officers referred to as Chips, and I live in California, but my brother knows far more about law enforcement stuff than I do, so I will defer to his opinion.