Blog Master G

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Learned Helplessness

Wednesday, January 21st, 2004 · No Comments

A Google search for buying an SUV has long yielded as the first result my rant from around this time last year about the fuel inefficiency of and misperception about the greater cabin space in SUVs (Think Twice Before Buying an SUV). That piece has yielded a number of comments and much debate on the topic. Americans are as deeply divided on SUVs as we are on politics.

Shedding more light on the topic of SUV safety in the January 12, 2004 issue of The New Yorker is Malcolm Gladwell in “Big and Bad: How the S.U.V. ran over automotive safety.” Unfortunately, this article is not available online, so I’d encourage you to find the print version. Either way, I’d also suggest reading the follow-up interview with Gladwell, Road Killers. In this interview he discusses in more detail some of the points he makes in the original article.

The primary point of “Big and Bad” is that SUVs are among the most dangerous vehicles on the road (for drivers and others on the road) due to the shoddy pickup-based construction of their frames, their tremendous weight (5,000 pounds-plus), and poor handling (despite SUV ads that suggest otherwise). Further, there has been a nonsensical psychological shift among consumers who buy SUVs that places more importance on perceived safety than on actually being safe. That is, because an SUV elevates the driver up high above the road and wraps him in nearly three tons of steel, there is a feeling of safety, even though there are data to show conclusively that there are more driver and other deaths caused by SUVs than cars and minivans, and that the response time to swerve or avoid a hazard or pedestrian is significantly greater in an SUV. The psychology of this “learned helplessness” suggests that the appeal of SUVs is that accidents are inevitable so it’s better to have a feeling of safety on the road. In essence, SUVs are about passive, rather than active, safety.

“It’s what happens when a larger number of drivers conclude, conclusively or otherwise,” writes Gladwell, “that the extra thirty feet that the TrailBlazer takes to come to a stop don’t really matter, that the tractor-trailer will hit them anyway, and that they are better off treating accidents as inevitable rather than avoidable.”

Gladwell writes later in the article that “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. … The man who gives up his sedate family sedan for an S.U.V. is saying something far more troubling (than buying a sports car in his midlife crisis) — that he finds the demands of the road to be overwhelming. Is acting out really worse than giving up?”

I, for one, prefer to be in control of my life and my safety. I prefer not to be a threat to other drivers and pedestrians on the roads. I’ll take the complexly-engineered frame, lighter body weight, and nimble maneuverability of my WRX over an SUV any day. My chances of being killed, killing, and avoiding accidents far surpass any SUV or truck on the road. Oh, and I have four-wheel drive, too, which, incidentally, Gladwell writes, is also a perceived feeling of safety since the driver of a car with two-wheel drive has a better sense of traction and slipping potential on the road than does the driver of a car or SUV with four-wheel drive.

Tags: rants