There was a study out last week that said that smaller and more fuel efficient cars are dangerous because, when they get smacked by a Hummer, they tend to get squashed like a bug along with whoever is inside them.
Predictably, lots of people said “See — small cars are dangerous!”
My response to that is, of course, “No, it shows big cars are dangerous,” although, in truth, it’s a bit more nuanced than that.
For example, I did a 20-mile bicycle ride on Sunday. We rode from my house out along Harrison, down the big hill to Uintah, then around through South Weber to the airport and back into town along 30th Street.
Ever step of the way I and my friends were the smallest, lightest, most exposed vehicles on the road.
That hardly made our bicycles dangerous. What it did was make us very, very cautious.
I have long subscribed to the “paranoia school of driving,” a philosophy that says people who merely use defensive driving are suicidal maniacs.
In the paranoia school of driving, you assume that the other guy is trying to kill you and make it look like an accident. This philosophy might make it hard to get out the front door in the morning, but it also changes the assumptions you make about other vehicle operators on the road who, let me repeat, are trying to kill you.
Specifically, you never assume you have the right of way. You never assume that other guy will stop for that stop sign. You never, ever, assume the other drivers can even see you. You always signal your intentions well in advance. You are a mouse surrounded by elephants.
For this reason, I’ve never had an accident — knock on wood — on my bicycle, despite 15 years and probably 20,000 miles on the road on two wheels. I feel safer on my bicycle than in my car.
The hullabaloo over the big car/small car thing is pushed, in part, by opponents to higher mileage requirments for cars. There seems to be an inherent opposition to telling Americans they can’t, always, buy the biggest hunk of steel on the road, and I quite often hear one of the rationalizations for buying big that “I’m safer. If I’m in an accident I want to be protected.” People who buy Hummers use this logic a lot. Some even boast that, when they had an accident, their car sustained no damage at all which, of course, means the other car got creamed.
There is the converse, of course. A Smithsonian Magazine article makes the good arguement that feeling safer makes people more willing to accept risk because they are more sure they’ll come out OK.
Even seat belts, it says, could cause accident rates to increase because people have less fear of flaming death. People in large Hummer-like vehicles ride so high off the road, and have so much steel around them, that it is possible to forget that the road containing other human beings is right outside the window, off over the edge of the front hood, out there somewhere.
On a bicycle, of course, one has no such illusions.
The road is inches away and cars zooming by are often the same. This clearly perceived danger enforces vigilance.
Add in a bit of paranoia, it makes one cautious. People in small cars need to be equally so, and if it can be demonstrated that small cars are the majority on the highways, maybe its time to tell people in big cars — through higher liability insurance rates, perhaps, or an extra tax to pay for the road damage their added weight does – to quit indangering the rest of us.
I do wish, as the bicycling season begins in earnest, that people would quit arguing over which type of vehicle is “safer.” What is really needed is safer vehicle operators. If pure terror makes one more cautious, then it is the smaller and more exposed that is safe, not the large and armored.