SUVMalcolm does it again. My favourite New Yorker writer this week (it’s not in the online edition, alas) psychoanalyzes America’s passion with the SUV and provides some frightening conclusions on automobile safety and driver psychology, and then wryly hints at, but leaves unsaid, some deeper truths that might naturally follow.

The first part of the article basically says that Americans love SUV’s because they make the driver feel safe, powerful, in control, under any driving conditions. They love them so much in fact that one Ford SUV plant in Michigan grossed 11 billion dollars last year (almost as much as McDonalds nationwide). And the automakers love them because SUVs are not subject to the same regulations as cars and minivans, and as a result are much cheaper and easier to build. Gladwell then shows, by means of a visit with Consumer Reports and a review of accident statistics, that the feelings of invincibility and control in an SUV are sheer myth. Bottom line is that the benefits of an SUV’s size and weight in an accident are more than offset, much more than offset, by the higher risk of getting into an accident in the first place due to less precise and responsive handling, longer braking speed (AWD notwithstanding), and fewer signals to the driver of poor road conditions. And that’s despite the marginal advantage of visibility due to the height of SUVs, itself offset by a higher risk of rollover.

Ultimately the problem is all in the driver’s mind. If drivers realized that they are no safer (in fact somewhat less safe) in an SUV than in a subcompact, their concentration and driving behaviour would compensate, SUV accidents would fall, and millions of ruined lives would be spared the consequences of this unwitting recklessness. Unfortunately, as long as SUVs convey the illusion of control and safety, that’s not likely to happen. And the answer isn’t to make SUVs and trucks subject to the same regulations as cars (though such regulations would vastly improve SUV product quality and gas mileage, which would be a good thing). That would increase the price but wouldn’t change the pyschology. It’s like when young hockey players were required to wear helmets, face guards and neck braces: Injury rates actually rose, because players suddenly felt safer taking more risks, and became careless, even aggressive, with elbows and sticks, feeling like they and their adversaries were immune to harm with all the padding.

Gladwell ascribes the insatiable passion for control and safety and invincibility to a syndrome called Learned Helplessness. The syndrome reinforces the exaggerated feeling of lack of control, of enormous danger, of inability to respond to danger, by repeated exposure to actual or apparent threats:

“Learned Helplessness is now thought to play a role in such phenomena as depression and the failure of battered women to leave their husbands, but one could easily apply it more widely. We live in an age, after all, that is strangely fixated on the idea of helplessness: we’re fascinated by hurricanes and terrorist acts and epidemics like SARS — situations in which we feel powerless to affect our own destiny. In fact, the risks posed to life and limb by forces outside our control are dwarfed by the factors we can control. Our fixation with helplessness distorts our perceptions of risk.”

Two years ago, millions of cows were slaughtered to contain a ‘mad cow’ breakout in Britain, and recent events in North America have whipped up the hysteria again, on the offchance that a small number of people could catch a rare form of CJD from infected cows. This week in China tens of thousands of wild civets are being slaughtered because someone thinks they might be connected with one new SARS case there. And as Gladwell reports, three years ago the greatest auto industry scandal in decades brought Firestone to its knees due to 271 tire failures in 630 billion tire miles, possibly contributing to a mere 0.00005% of auto accidents in the US that year.

Gladwell leaves it at that, but the reader’s mind cannot. The reality is that this delusion of danger, and the illusion that something can or has to be done, that someone — British cows, Canadian farmers, Chinese cats, Firestone, Saddam Hussein — must be brought to account in order to give us back control, is literally making us all crazy. It causes us to believe we cannot let children out of our sight even for a moment. It causes us to wildly change our diets, to avoid visiting whole countries, to fingerprint whole nations of visitors, to suspend civil liberties, to put barbed wire around our communities, to drink only bottled water, to wear masks, to introduce five levels of increasingly hysterical ‘threat’ to everyone’s safety.

It is irrational, neurotic, panic-stricken behaviour, a wild over-reaction to a tiny uncontrollable risk while we recklessly disregard risks we could control and which kill and destroy lives in large numbers everyday — air and water pollution, tainted food from corrupt and underregulated meat packers, drugs in sport and airplane cockpits, drunk drivers, kids with guns, corporate frauds, a prison system that incarcerates the mentally ill and encourages criminal recidivism — and on and on and on. Unfortunately, it is also in the best interest of the media and governments to focus on the uncontrollable risks, and to pander to public fear and fascination with them. They’re more sensational, more visceral. And since there’s really nothing that can be done about them, you can do anything, or nothing, in response to them, and not be held accountable, or responsible. The risks we could control, on the other hand, are mundane, day-to-day, hard and expensive but not impossible to remedy, would if remedied save thousands of lives, and is the responsibility of all of us. Viewers, voters, and consumers don’t like to think about such things. Messy. Complicated. Nagging. Costly. And the media, and politicians, are glad to oblige.

P.S.: The reason you never see photos of the esteemed Mr. Gladwell, he of the Tipping Point, is that he is only 39, and looks younger. His credibility demands we think of him as older. Besides which, he’s (shhh — don’t tell anyone) a Canadian. Also, this week’s New Yorker also has a great article that is, at least for now, online: James Surowiecki’s summary of war profiteering in Iraq and the insanity and cost of outsourcing ‘non-core’ competency military activities to Bush’s buddies (oops, I mean, to the private sector).

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  1. Raging Bee says:

    Excellent post! Totally spot-on, except for the minor detail that the outbreak in Britain two years ago was foot-in-mouth (called hoof-in-mouth here), not mad-cow. Spot-on about those ridiculous SUVs, though…

  2. Marijo says:

    If any other product (pharmaceutical? child’s toy?) caused the number of deaths as automobiles, it would be off the market in days. Obviously the reason that people like to have us insanely focused on problems we cannot solve is that they make tons of money by not solving (and hiding) the real problems. I find it utterly amazing, whenever there is some new scare in the news. I haven’t checked the data lately, but I think that cars cause more deaths in one year than wars have in the past 30 or so. I’ll go check and get back to you.

  3. d says:

    it’s fascinating how driven by fear we all are. noam chomsky has done some writing about our culture of fear as well, if i’m not mistaken.. although i have not read it.

  4. Marijo says:

    Some facts: Americans who died in Viet Nam: 56,244 Americans who died in motor Vehicle accidents in 2002: 44,000And: There is a death caused by a motor vehicle crash every 12 minutes; there is a disabling injury every 14 seconds. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people ages 1 to 33. The age groups most affected by motor vehicle crashes are 15-24 and 75+. There were an estimated 5,700 pedestrian deaths and 80,000 injuries. Walking in the roadway accounted for only 10% of all pedestrian deaths and injuries. About 3 in every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related traffic accident at some time in their lives. Bicycling resulted in about 700 deaths in collisions with motor vehicles. safety stats from:

  5. although i have not read it yet, barry glassner’s “the culture of fear: why americans are afraid of the wrong things” seems very relevant to the post and new yorker article – reviews of the book are easy to find online – the author and the book are featured in the micheal moore documentary “bowling for columbine”

  6. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Dave, you’ve inspired me. (self-linking there)

  7. Raging Bee says:

    Surely we don’t need the likes of Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky to separate common sense from fear! Those incompetent charlatans would only do more harm than good.

  8. CJ says:

    Thanks for the post, Dave. Good one. I have observed this social craziness for years now, although 9/11 seems to have brought it to a full boil. The whole color coded alert thing we’re subject to fits in nicely as well.Oh, and nice Moore/Chomsky troll there, PTW… but I’m not biting though. <very big grin>

  9. Evan says:

    Wonderful post, Dave.It ties in to something I was just thinking about, actually–an article I read a few years back, which randomly floated back into my mind earlier today. This article alleged that there have been traffic studies which showed that drivers instinctively slow down when they’re in neighborhoods where children are at play and pedestrians afoot, and speed up in neighborhoods where there’s no visible street activity. Consequently, parents who decide to keep their kids inside or in the back yard out of fear of traffic are actually making the street marginally *less* safe for the other kids in the same neighborhood. Fewer kids->cars speed up->more parents worry about safety->fewer kids->etc.Shapeless irrational dread drives us to turn our neighborhoods into dead zones. And that pretty-much guarantees that we will feel *more* shapeless irrational dread, or so it seems to me.Where does it end? How? As a parent in a largely dead neighborhood, do I dare send *my* son out to play in the front yard? (Well, not until he’s older than two, anyway, but you get my point.) In a way it seems almost a civic duty on my part to liven up the yard and help make the neighborhood human again. But he’s my son, and I’m human, and I live in this culture, and the idea makes me as nervous as it does all my neighbors. How does one break the fear chain?

  10. Kate says:

    Great post, Dave.One of our department’s required readings last semester was about Gerbner’s “Mean World Syndrome,” a theory that asserts violence in the media makes us believe the world is far more dangerous than it actually is. The article, “The Man Who Counts the Killings,” was from the Atlantic (1998? don’t remember). It relates directly to your discussion, I think. Very nice analysis of the SUV culture and what’s behind it. The good news is there seems to be a growing anti-SUV movement. It’s depressing, though, that there is any need at all for a movement in the first place.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone, and the useful additional references. Evan, your post made me think of the metaphor of the scarecrow, which we put in fields to create irrational fear in birds so they won’t eat the crops. Maybe you need a chiled-size ‘scarecrow’ on the boulevard near your street to make drivers slow down. A lot of people park white cars at the end of driveways pointing out (reminds me of that joke about the guy pointing a hair dryer at passing drivers…never mind) to slow down drivers. Now I’m going to be thinking about how much Saddam looked like a scarecrow when he was captured ;-)

  12. Wifey says:

    ‘Learned Helplessness’? Isn’t that part of the ‘American Culture’?

  13. Raging Bee says:

    Evan: You’re starting to break the “fear chain” already; the more people see you letting your kid play outside, the more they’ll be encouraged to do the same. Letting other kids play with yours in your front yard might also help. So might low, well-marked speed bumps at regular intervals.I believe Hitler once said: “It is an axiom of war, that the nation that stays within its fortifications is beaten.” The same applies to people who hide in gated “communities” and oversized cars.

  14. Yule Heibel says:

    Another example of “learned helplessness” is illustrated by what typically happens during pregnancy/ childbirth. When I was pregnant with my first-born in 1990-91 and didn’t want an amniocentesis, the medical staff literally flipped out and tried to convince me to have the test because otherwise “we could be sued.” (I.e., if the baby isn’t perfect, the patient-mother will sue the doctors & nurses who delivered it.) (And of course, the corollary: if your baby isn’t “perfect,” you’ll “naturally” want enough time-leeway to abort it because we live, after all, in an age of Nazi eugenics where only the perfect should be allowed to live.)I walked away from that situation and headed for a midwife-run free-standing birth centre instead. But my experience is, I think, another example of how establishement thinking can start you on this road to learned helplessness: they get you during pregnancy, and when you submit, the seed is planted and learned fear-helplessness continues straight on with parental paranoias about what could happen to your kid (including his or her getting smashed to bits by a careless, on-steroids-SUV-driver), and most especially with the belief that if you don’t do this and that, and more of this and extra of that (typically having to do with getting him or her into the “right” schools, etc.), then he or she won’t …succeed. Which gets us back to fear of failure and the fantastic notion that we should be getting guarantees in life. (PS: My baby turned out alright: he did not, as the doctors initially tried aggressively to convince me, have Down’s Syndrome, a “prediction” they made based on the spurious alpha-feto-protein test I stupidly agreed to in lieu of amniocentesis. I am also not holding my breath about all the other disasters that possibly await them in the here and now, for if I did, I’d never breathe again….)

  15. says:

    Dave, A really great post. But what’s your proposed solution to the problem?Ron

  16. Kevin says:

    I think you can find this article online at Gladwell’s own web-site.

  17. Hummer Guy says:

    I’d like to invite everyone to visit my new Hummer (off roading) blog at and start posting your comments on Hummers or other off roading topics.

  18. chris smith says:

    A new film about SUV has just been posted online. Very interesting interviews about drivers and their attitude to climate change.

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