In the never ending search for self-knowledge, I have carefully read the arguments against SUV owners, including the summation of a new broadside entitled High and Mighty: SUVs, the World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. This is a book-length treatment costing $28 — more than it costs to fill up my SUV — written by Keith Bradsher, identified as the New York Times‘s Hong Kong bureau chief.
Whacking SUVs is a fairly common passion in the Scold Community. The vehicles use more gas than Hondas, are bigger than Hyundais, and are more likely to roll over than a Saab. But these mechanical characteristics are not the true targets of the indictment; those who own and drive SUVs wear the bull’s-eye. As befitting our age of instant psychoanalysis, these critics believe themselves able to delve deeply into the souls and psyches of people they have never met, and who they clearly would not want to meet.
This puts the critics in the company of those who believed they could judge people’s intelligence levels by the shape of the skull and/or the number of knots on their head. For the fact is, this indictment is wrong.
Let us consider its finer points. Mr. Bradsher (perhaps a bastardization of Bradshaw) tells us that SUV owners “tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.”
Using the words “tend,” “frequently,” “often,” and “apt to be” are sure tip-offs that the writer is blowing smoke out his bohunkus. That is not guessing: I use them myself in a pinch. And common sense would tell you that the complete opposite is much closer to the truth. SUVs, for one thing, are large — big enough not only for the spouse and kids but a few neighbors as well. This is a community car. In addition, people who are nervous about their marriages and parenthood clearly prefer two-seaters such as a Porsche, which has just enough room for a driver, his mistress, a cooler, and a road map.
Common sense also tells us that Mr. Bradsher’s indictment probably tells us more about him than about the objects of his scorn. To be sure, he no doubt thinks of himself as a boffo individual: secure in his marriage, a masterful parent, and a driver whose road skills approach the level of art. He is no doubt convinced that he is also selfless, extroverted, and a great guy to have in the neighborhood, city, county, state, and nation. Indeed the cosmos is blessed by his presence.
Yet a lifetime’s experience strongly endorses the possibility that Mr. Bradsher may be a far different fellow than he presumes himself to be. It seems highly likely that he is indeed an insufferable, preening, self-congratulatory bore who drives his family and neighbors crazy with his arrogant sermonizing.
He may also suffer from the hysteria illness, as indicated by his use of the word “menacing” nine times in one five-page passage to describe SUVs. He even considers the lowly PT Cruiser to be “dangerous.” Stupid looking it is, but dangerous is stretching it, save in the sense that a normal person feels inspired to throw a rock whenever one draws near. He also indicts SUVs as “a lethal threat to pedestrians.” What vehicle isn’t?
It could also be pointed out, as one of Mr. Bradsher’s critics has already done, that U.S. highway deaths have dropped by 50 percent since the mid-1980s — a time during which the sale of SUVs jumped by 600 percent. But the larger point is that Mr. Bradsher is wrong about SUV drivers. I know plenty, and drive one myself from time to time. These facts are not in dispute. I get along fine with the missus most all the time. Been doing so for going on 24 years. I am worshipped by my sons, especially on pay day. The other evening I had drinks with my neighbors. It was all very pleasant. As for self-absorption, it seems safe to say that there are few people around who think of themselves as much or as often as Mr. Bradsher thinks of Mr. Bradsher. This is a guess, but a reasonable one. Prophets, scolds and self-righteous motorists are by their nature self-consumed.
It is also the fact that like lots of SUV drivers, I drive other cars. Indeed, I am currently in the process of buying a “new” Honda Accord, with 153,000 original miles on it. If Mr. Bradsher saw me driving that humble heap he’d no doubt assume I am a good guy, just like himself: perhaps a volunteer orderly up at the old folks home, a planter of trees, a soccer coach, and a boon companion to all who are good and decent. If I drove by in the SUV he’d think me the opposite.
So it’s hard not to take Mr. Bradsher too seriously. One does wonder how he got the job in Hong Kong. Maybe Howell Raines was trying to get him out of the neighborhood.