Drive A 100 Miles In His SUV
Walk a Mile in a Man's Shoes; Drive 100 Miles in his SUV
I recently had the dubious pleasure of driving an SUV for the first time. I was to drive a friend's Ford Explorer home after dropping them off at the airport. As a passenger in the back seat, I felt quite cozy and comfy with the company of good conversation, but when I climbed into the driver's seat it was a whole 'nother story. Suddenly I was just way too high and I felt like I was in a semi hauling a weighty load. The steering seemed to labor its demands to the wheels and I hardly wanted to get up any speed for fear that I wouldn't be able to stop. I might not have been so conscious of all this had I not just read the article in the New Yorker (Jan. 12, 04) on the phenomenon of the SUV. The article describes how a typical SUV clearly fudged a simple road test simulating a scenario to avoid a child on a tricycle and an oncoming truck.
I drove gingerly with this in mind, making sure to double check my clearance with every lane change. Why, I had to wonder, did people buy these things when a minivan holds more and is better engineered for safety? It turns out that they buy them because it makes them feel secure. All that upholstered, drink-cup accessible comfort in such a massive steel box made them feel safe up there. SUV drivers felt that they were much more likely to survive a crash protected by so much weight and steel than if they drove my little Honda, never mind that I could better get out of harms way and avoid the crash altogether. Arriving in town, I found that other driver's treated me differently and I realized I had gained a status I was unaccustomed to as a small woman of a minority race. I was being given the right of way whether it was mine or not. I was the equal of any man on the road, big enough to dominate the playground, big enough to make my own rules.
While waiting to make a right turn, I paused a little longer to take an extra cautionary look around and was surprised to see somewhere down around my right ankle, a man looking up at me. He was in the crosswalk on a bicycle. Had I been in my own car, he would have been at my eye level; our eyes would have met in a glance. Here, with me on my truck throne, he was making sure I saw him before he crossed. How was I supposed to see him if I hadn't been consciously looking, I wondered?
I was suddenly struck by my new status. Usually I was the one on the bicycle looking up at the woman in the SUV. Would she see me? Did she care? Isn't it interesting, I thought to myself, that American drivers are seeking security in an isolated, steel box, which renders them oblivious to feedback from the road. This heavy unresponsive box actually making them more unsafe in their vehicles and more dangerous as drivers. Why it's just like our foreign policy, I realized.
Here we are isolated on our own continent, piling up more steel in the form of weapons, refusing to listen to feedback from our allies or our environment and barreling full speed ahead wherever we want to go, thinking we were making ourselves safe from terrorism. The sense that bad things are going to happen anyway, so we might as well shroud ourselves in steel, upholster ourselves in comfort and hope for the best, is where it's at for SUV drivers. What the article called a shift in how we think of safety -from active response to feedback and avoidance of danger, to passive immobility, riding high and hoping the brinks-truck body protects us as we inevitably collide with danger. It was this passivity that worried me, this attitude of inevitability.
Are we in America today distracting ourselves with comfort, cheap gasoline and the "feeling" of being safe while helplessly standing by in orange alert waiting for our military to wipe out danger, turning away from global warming, giving up on making informed choices and our ability to do anything about it, waiting for science to save us, or Arnold Schwarzenegger? I couldn't wait to hand over the keys to this vehicle that was beginning to feel more like a coffin with windows.
March 1st, 2004
edited for length