Again picking on small cars? Wrong!

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.

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8 Responses to Again picking on small cars? Wrong!

  1. Flatlander100 says:

    An important corollary of the “Paranoid Theory of Driving” is this:

    “Drunk drivers ALWAYS have the right of way.”

  2. Dave Thalgott says:

    I grew up as a High School and College kid driving a Volkswagon Karmann Ghia convertable (yes, I WAS stylin’). My Dad’s advise was clear and straight forward, “Dirve the way you want, but understand, you will not survive a collision or a serious crash of any kind.” I’m a very good driver but, to this day in my 50′s, I’m a very careful driver.

  3. Cathy says:

    just wrap yourself in a hummer and you can drive however you like. if you don’t protect yourself like that, you’ll have to be responsible for yours and others’ actions and could face dire consequences for what you do.

    it’s funny, the pope actually made the same argument against condoms as you make about hummers, but he got lambasted for it ;)

    getting back to your topic, no doubt about it, people on bikes, motorcycles, and small cars have to assume that they are invisible in traffic. i hope people will become more mindful as they drive, so they will see them.

  4. Charles Trentelman says:

    last time i checked there was a teensy difference between a condom and a Hummer, although there are those who speculate Hummers compensate some buyers for their lack of need to buy large condoms, if you get my drift.

  5. Cathy says:

    risky behavior is risky behavior. it increases when we feel “bulletproof.” as you say… who is going to take more risks – the person who feels protected no matter what they do… or the person who knows they are exposed and more vulnerable? ;)

    just sayin.

  6. ctrentelman says:

    Robert Hienlein wrote a story that expounds on this very thing, called “Tunnel in the Sky,” its about trainees who have to live on a wild planet by themselves for 48-hours. They end up living there for years, and the most poorly armed are those who survive because they don’t dare take on the wild beasts — they hide and learn to adapt.

    sort of like me on a 25 lb bicycle riding harrison boulevard.

  7. laytonian says:

    Darn, Charles. Please warn us next time; I just spit cola all over my monitor.

    Sign me:
    ’03 Prius driver following a large SUV…very very carefully

  8. mother says:

    big cars are dinosaurs and so is the thinking that makes people buy them. We know what happened to the dinosaurs. I just hope these folks don’t take us all out with them.

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