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March 01, 2003

Ideas of Safety

From High and Mighty by Keith Bradsher comes this insight into a key difference between the U.S. and Europe and Asia:

Nissan has found that drivers in Europe and Asia typically have very different attitudes toward vehicle safety from American drivers. Europeans and Asians tend to associate safety with a nimble vehicle with excellent brakes that can swerve or stop quickly so as to avoid an accident entirely, said Jerry P. Hirshberg, Nissan's recently retired president of North American design. Americans tend to have less confidence in their driving skills and assume that crashes are inevitable, so they have gravitated instead to tanklike vehicles that will protect occupants even if they plow into another vehicle. Buyers of sport utilities seem to be especially American in this regard, Hirshberg added (107).

Of course, Nissan's findings are well supported by the different cars driven by Americans vs. Euros and Asians. In the U.S., we drive tanks; in most of the rest of the world they drive safe, little anti-tanks. Now apply this difference to foreign policy and we get:

[People] in Europe and Asia typically have very different attitudes toward [national and global] safety from American people. Europeans and Asians tend to associate safety with a nimble [foreign policy] with excellent brakes that can swerve or stop quickly so as to avoid an accident entirely. Americans tend to have less confidence in their [diplomatic] skills and assume that crashes are inevitable, so they have gravitated instead to tanklike [policies] that will protect [them] even if [the country] plows into another [country]. The Bush Administration seems to be especially American in this regard.

Hence, the problem we face today: The U.S. just wants to plow through (using bombs as its plow) any obstacle to its vision of the world, while the rest of the world is saying, "Hey, why don't we avoid this problem instead of just trying to minimize the number of deaths on our side?" It's the difference between a world governed by force and violence (the SUV/American imperialist camp), vs. a world governed by preventive diplomacy and cooperation (the anti-tank/international and multilateral camp).

This is why Bradsher's book is so great -- the problems he identifies with SUVs are really metaphors for a vast number of the other problems we face today. The same selfish, anti-social, and wasteful people who buy SUVs also support selfish, anti-social, and wasteful policies with regard to foreign policy, education, health care, and all other social services. We don't live in a nicely divided world where our choice of transportation has zero to do with out position on home schooling, but that's the fantasy we really wish were true. (I don't have time at the moment to explain how/why SUV owners relate to home schooling, but if you don't see the connection, let me know and I'll give the explanation a try.)

Posted March 1, 2003 10:25 AM | ai books


I enjoyed the article very much!
Add to this the environmental effects.
The U.S. is responsible today for 25% of global carbon emissions. Yet in the beginning of 2002 the U.S. government rejected the Kyoto Protocol.
About half of sales of new cars in the U.S. todat corresponds to SUVs. The image of SUVs teeming in traffic and releasing greenhouse gases is today more correct than the caricature of filthy factories expeling gross pollution through their chimneys.

Posted by: J. Scaramucci at March 10, 2003 03:30 PM

That's a great comparison -- today's SUVs are the pollution-belching factories of the 19th and early 20th centuries. And you're right: when the U.S. pulled out of Kyoto, it did serious damage to global relations (not to mention the environmental damage that has followed or is likely to follow). I doubt it's stretching to say that at least some of the vehement anti-Bush administration sentiment around the world began in 2001 when Bush pulled the U.S. out of Kyoto. Of course, that was just one of a serious of treaties Bush either broke or pulled out of, and each one erased another measure of world trust and goodwill. That's why I'm beginning to think this whole international chess match over Iraq is less about "weapons of mass destruction" and more about the world finally standing up to the bully Bush. We can only hope that the challenge proves successful, that the UN resolves the Iraq situation w/out war, and that the international community shows the Bush administration that it can't do whatever it wants.

Oh wait, were we talking about SUVs? ;-)

Posted by: ambimb at March 11, 2003 07:33 AM

What a ridiculous rant. This is a very poor example of "If Then" logic and echoes like cheap propaganda. Compared to its main adversaries, the US has generally relied on smaller more nimble fighting units and vehicles. Russia dwarfed the US with respect to the amount of Nuclear weapons that it had, and the Chinese army dwarfs the current US military in number of enlisted soldiers. The US relies on being lighter, more nimble, and more effective than its enemies. Thatís doctrine. To say that because we want to and can bomb the smithereens out of Iraq is related to the reason why American soccer moms like to drive their kids around in Excursions borders on idiocy.

The true reasons we have these big ass SUVís being sold everywhere has more to do with the way our highway systems differ from the rest of the worlds. First of all, our speed limits are much lower than they are in Europe, especially when you consider Germany. I now live n the DC metro area and have driven in Europe; they are better drivers! Have you ever heard of the Autobahn? Driving at such high speeds on a regular basis, in my opinion, makes you a "BETTER" driver and more aware of the fact that such speed can be dangerous. This is why European consumers demand more performance out of their vehicles. Furthermore, with respect to the rest of the world, our roads are incredible smooth, strait, wide, and flat. European roads are often tight and made out of cobblestone. An SUV or even American Minivan would be impractical in Europe. This is reflected by European SUV sales. When you pull up to a petrol station to filler up while checking out the incredibly high price per litre, you suddenly appreciate smaller lighter vehicles. The road doesnít challenge the average American as much as it does Europeans and Japanese on a daily basis. It makes driving smaller, more performance-oriented vehicles more of a necessity. Driving on route 50 in West Virginia is the closest experience I have had in the US that reminds me of driving in Europe. Iíve only been there once and donít ever want to drive that road again. I was driving a 95 Integra GSR.

To conclude that American Foreign policy reflects our desire to drive SUVís is pretty stupid. It ignores the fact that the demand comes mostly from women who also represent the smallest portion of our military. Such ill logic is highly ignorant poisonous.

Shawn Thomas, DC

Posted by: Shawn Thomas at March 12, 2003 12:06 PM

Hmm... visiting this post a year later, and having driven in Europe, the U.S., and Japan, I'm going to go for the "the roads are narrower, and so you buy smaller cars" theory. If London drivers are any better than Chicago or Detroit drivers, I really didn't notice it.

The quote above is like guessing at the confidence and character of drivers based on the fact that a much lower percentage of UK cars have cruise control. Much more likely that, in a country with that many roundabouts, it's a rarely used feature, than a sign that, say, the British are a bundle of control freaks or something.

Posted by: A. Rickey at March 1, 2004 11:34 PM

Speaking of that, I've never lived anywhere in Japan where you could comfortably drive an SUV. Once you get out of the cities and into the suburbs, the roads can be very narrow, they twist a lot, and visibility around corners can be magnificently difficult. An SUV in Japan would be wonderful if you needed a very heavy paperweight for your garage, but it wouldn't be very practical, whatever your skill.

Nonetheless, I think trying to achieve the kind of population density necessary to justify Japanese-suburban roads in, say, Montana, isn't likely to be achievable any time soon.

Posted by: A. Rickey at March 1, 2004 11:36 PM

Well sure, a large theme of Bradsher's book is that geography and the way the U.S. has developed over the last 150 years have a lot to do with the attitudes and norms that make SUVs popular. We have bigger and more roads so we drive bigger cars. Right. We have more space (e.g., Montana), so we have bigger and more roads. Europe and Asia have, by necessity, developed differently, adapting their built space and their autos to less space and higher population densities. These differences have forced the people of these other countries to recognize that their "personal" choices -- about, say, what auto to buy and drive, or whether to buy a car at all -- aren't personal at all, but have large effects on the people around them and the world in which they live. So while it's true that Americans like SUVs because we have more and bigger roads and more space, that's merely skimming the surface. Bradsher's book tries to go beneath such surface observations to talk about the attitudes and norms that have developed along with these differences, and more importantly, to explore the consequences of those attitudes and norms.

Also, Bradsher isn't suggesting that Londoners are better drivers than American, only that they have different ideas of what makes a "safe" car...

Posted by: ambimb at March 2, 2004 04:58 AM

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