Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffrey Goldberg

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 10 1999 9:30 PM

Jeffrey Goldberg

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A big, blowy snowstorm landed on Washington yesterday, and typically, things went haywire. Washingtonians can't drive through slush without smacking into trees, so eight or ten inches of snow just lock the place down.

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Except that I wasn't locked-down, and neither were my fellow SUVers. The only things that bothered us yesterday were the low-axle, no-wheel-drive sedans getting in our way as we sped down snow-covered streets. As I was zipping down Connecticut Avenue yesterday in my Ford Explorer, I realized just how lucky I am, and how wrong Malcolm Gladwell is.

In The New Yorker last week, Gladwell argued that SUV drivers, no less than drunk drivers, are menaces to society. It is, Gladwell wrote, "abundantly clear that sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks can--by virtue of their weight, high clearance, and structural rigidity--do far more damage in an accident than conventional automobiles can." He goes on to call for a "prohibitive weight tax on sport utilities," which would go to pay "the medical bills and compensate the family of anyone hit by some cell-phone-wielding yuppie in a four-wheeled behemoth."

But Gladwell has it exactly wrong. The problem on the roads today is not too many SUVs, but too few.

It is the clearance and weight disparities between SUVs and smaller, low-riding sedans that Gladwell objects to, disparities that lead to frequent death among those sedan-drivers unfortunate enough to encounter us cell-phone-wielding maniacs head-on.

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The solution, then, is not to ban SUVs, but to make them mandatory. Given that it is safer to drive an SUV (unless you're the type who can't handle curves) than a conventional automobile, and given that America and its automotive industry stand for progress and bigness, and given that there is now quite apparently too much gasoline in the world (78 cents a gallon in Virginia!), Gladwell shouldn't be arguing for an SUV tax but for an SUV tax break.

Of course, Gladwell is a known Canadian who doesn't even own a car, or, for that matter, a subway token. I happen to know from firsthand experience that the only car Gladwell ever owned was some sort of gas-sipping proto-Geo. He maintains that it was a Honda Civic Wagon, but I remember it as a Ford Escort, or perhaps an AMC Pacer.

I wish he had been with me yesterday, as I four-wheel-drived my way through snow-blanketed Washington, watching the little bunny cars like the one Gladwell used to drive slip and slide their way toward disaster. It was a day of vindication for me, because I've been on the defensive since I took the Explorer home--my wife thinks it's the stupidest thing I've ever bought, at least since the time I bought an eight-pound Spanish-Mayan dictionary in Merida, Mexico, even though I speak neither Spanish nor Mayan.

But she will admit, in generous moments, that the Explorer is a safe way to transport our children. I will admit, in turn, that a poorly-driven Explorer--and especially a poorly-driven Expedition or Excursion, the new Ford SUV that, I'm not making this up, weighs 157 tons empty--could pose a danger to other people's children, until the parents of said children receive the tax break (the "Gladwell exemption," let's call it) that will allow them to buy an SUV of their own.

The debate over SUVs reminds me of the split between public-health officials and physicians on the question of antibiotics. The public-health experts decry the overprescription of antibiotics, because antibiotic abuse weakens our collective immunity, but the job of a sick person's doctor is to worry about that patient alone, and therefore to prescribe antibiotics even if there's just a moderate chance the patient could be helped by them.

It's the same with SUVs. On the one hand, as responsible members of society, we should strive toward vehicular socialism--if Congress won't make SUVs mandatory, then we should all drive vehicles of similar weight and clearance, even if they're smaller than my Explorer. But in the real world, my job as a parent is to protect my children, and, recognizing that there are lunatics on the road driving big and small cars (and big and small trucks), my responsibility is to surround my children with as much steel as I can afford.

End of rant. I have to go now and dig out my wife's Camry.