TCS Daily

SUVs and the Clash of Cultures

By John Baden - February 6, 2004 12:00 AM

I just returned from Moab, UT, the mountain bike capital of the West. I discovered that Moab is also the epicenter of 4x4 off-roading and the home of the annual "Easter Jeep Safari." This event draws over 1,000 of these tricked-out toys and the behemoth trucks that bring them to Moab from all over the nation.

Given recent controversies over SUVs and condemnations of their drivers, the pro-SUV atmosphere in Moab was really quite remarkable. I am intrigued by the hostility shown SUVs, especially given their popularity in our region. Having been an anthropologist, I detect cultural conflict.

It's akin to a statement often heard in November of 1980, attributed to an editor at The New Yorker: "I don't understand how Reagan could have won, nobody I know voted for him!"

Exactly! Of course she didn't understand. She lived in a hermetically sealed social universe. Her tribe's opinions were limited to those sanctified by Harper's and The New York Review of Books.

A January 12 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, "Big and Bad: How the SUV Ran Over Automotive Safety," reinforces this cultural divide. It's a hoot.

According to Gladwell, SUVs "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." This insight comes from a French anthropologist whose specialty is "getting beyond the rational" and tapping into deeper "reptilian" responses. Seriously. I've read it four times. (And they've not printed a retraction.)

It gets worse (and funnier). What, he asks, 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 [feelings of] safety."

Now back to reality. First, individuals evaluate decisions thinking of the well-being of themselves and those they care most about, i.e., their families. Second, despite biblical admonitions commanding otherwise, the impacts of a decision on unknown others are ignored or discounted. That's the way the world works.

Gladwell presents a table of consequences for 33 vehicles showing drivers' and other deaths from accidents. It shows that the Chrysler Town & Country, a minivan, is the safest at 31 driver deaths per million vehicles. (As automotive engineers say, "Mass saves your ass.")

The Suburban is nearly four times safer than several subcompacts, at 46 driver deaths versus 146 to 161 deaths. In which would you put your loved ones?

To condemn SUV buyers as immoral for wanting the "wrong" thing ignores the necessity of people making trade-offs among many values. Evolution selects for those who favor family safety over statistical impacts on distant parties.

SUV buyers weigh their family's benefits of safety, convenience, comfort, and dependability against the $45,000 price tag. These are the variables the decision makers weigh.

Granted, my Suburban or Excursion endangers those in smaller, lighter vehicles. But try this thought experiment.

A driver in one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available, the Honda Insight Hybrid, swerves into my lane when driving down the canyon. I walk away from the collision rattled but unharmed. The autopsy shows the Honda driver had an over-the-limit blood alcohol level. We later learn he had three convictions for drunk driving.

Good economists understand the overriding importance of time- and place-specific variables. Manhattan, Montana, is really quite different from Manhattan, NY -- or Southern California. I've seen snow here in every month of the year. There are literally dozens, perhaps hundreds of times when I could not make it home to the ranch in anything but a 4x4 or a snowmobile.

I admit my bias, for I was ahead of this automotive cultural curve. When a grad student in the '60s, I worked in the woods. I drove an International Harvester 4x4 pickup and a Land Rover.

This year marks the 38th Easter Jeep Safari in Moab. When I got my first 4x4 workhorses, these guys began using Army surplus jeeps to scramble around the rocks of southern Utah. Today their tricked-out toys cost $45,000.

The New Yorker's anti-SUV diatribe and the Moab Safari crowd bracket opinion on SUVs. We are blessed to live in a nation where such divergence is possible.

John A. Baden, Ph.D., is chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and Gallatin Writers, Inc. Both are based in Bozeman, Montana.


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