Why Americans Want Their Big Cars

By David L. Brown

Earlier today I posted a piece about the new CAFE standards. Although I raised some questions about the scale of the promised benefits and analyzed some of the reasons why it will not result in a sudden near-term reversal of our energy and transportation problems, all in all I am strongly in favor of reducing our use of non-replaceable petroleum on the roads and highways. My only objection to the new standards, if it could even be called a complaint, is that these changes should have been made decades ago.

But we Americans fell in love with the automobile  a long time back, and more than that, we fell for BIG cars. (Unless, of course, they are FAST cars in which case all is forgiven as long as they’re also sexy looking chick magnets.)

The infectious car bug is hard to kick and it’s not going to be easy for Americans to change. Heck, even third world countries have caught the disease as we see from the fact that China has recently become the world’s No. 1 market for new automobiles and Tata Nanos are selling like hot currycakes in India. It looks like it’s almost become a universal human right to own and drive an automobile.

But only we Americans have been so focused on the questionable idea that bigger-is-always-better.

One sign of the resistance by Americans to give up their big iron is illustrated through the use of photos such as the one below, which are intended to demonstrate that small cars are death traps. In fact, I found this image on a blog site where that very point was being made.


This picture, it should be pointed out, is from Europe, not America. In Europe people have been driving small cars since Allah was a pup—the BIG car craze never caught on there. (But FAST did, in the home of the Ferrari, the Lamborghini, the Porsche and the Aston Martin.)

Now there is no argument that a very small object striking a very large object poses a serious disadvantage to the smaller one. But we should keep in mind that it is all a matter of scale, or as Einstein would have put it, relativity. If a fully loaded Cadillac Escalade had struck that Scania truck head-on, it would probably have suffered the worst of it too. True, the crash pictured above doesn’t look like it would have been survivable for the driver, but even a full-sized American big-iron SUV isn’t going to out-crush a truck.

And since it is all relative, it’s interesting to note that even the trucks are bigger here in America. I remember an occasion right after I returned from several months in Europe when a living, breathing all-American tractor-trailer rig drove past me. My jaw dropped in awe and I muttered “Damn that thing’s big.” No, they hadn’t gotten bigger during my absence, I’d just forgotten how truly enormous they are.

The car-truck conflict in America could be viewed as a kind of arms race, bigger trucks leading to bigger cars and SUVs, rinse and repeat. Now we need to wind down that vehicular arms race just as the U.S. and Russia are winding down their nuclear arsenals.

Those who object to the idea of being forced to drive a smaller car often fail to recognize that smaller cars can be more nimble, capable of dodging that oncoming White Freightliner whose driver just fell asleep after logging 1500 miles since yesterday morning. That’s the same argument the drivers of sports cars use to justify their choice of wheels. Which would you rather have when staring a fast-approaching rig in the teeth: A 426-hp behemoth too big and clumsy to get out of the way, or a nimble Mini Cooper that can dance aside to live another day? I’ll take the Mini, thanks, and the greater fuel economy as a bonus. (Actually, I drive a paid-up Jeep Liberty which itself is not too large and fairly nimble as these things go.)

So, which is the death trap?

Unfortunately, any vehicle can be the instrument of doom. It’s not uncommon for the operators of big rigs to be injured or die while trying to avoid a little car whose driver wandered out in front of them without looking. That makes the point again that bigger isn’t necessarily better, since it is almost impossible to make rapid evasive maneuvers in a tractor-trailer rig without flipping it.

So, my two cents on this question: No matter what its size, the vehicle is pretty much as safe as the driver. The old National Safety Council message about defensive driving should be heeded at all times. I have driven well over a million miles in my life, and have learned not only to look both ways, but to look twice. It’s a habit I would strongly recommend for those who wish to enjoy their Golden Years.

And anyone who takes his or her responsibilities to the Planet seriously must be in favor of more economical vehicles. It’s not just a good idea, it’s a must-do requirement if we are to save the future world for our descendants. Just make sure you’re ready to play dodge ’em cowboy when that approaching big rig starts to stray across into your lane.

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