The perception of safety

Posted: February 18, 2004 at 12:33 am in people

I really liked Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. When a friend of mine lent me an article that Gladwell had written in the New Yorker, I went looking for it on the web and found that Gladwell publishes all of his articles on his website (that article, entitled “The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated?” is one I want to discuss at some point as well). But the article I want to talk about today is his article about SUVs, which I saw a link to this morning.

I think the most interesting thing about the article is the thesis Gladwell develops that people buy SUV for the feeling of safety vs. actually being safe. He goes to the testing grounds of Consumer Reports to compare a Chevy Trailblazer vs. a Porsche Boxster, and finds that the Trailblazer handles terribly (duh), meaning that if you were driving one, you would not be able to avoid collisions.

Most of us think that S.U.V.s are much safer than sports cars. If you asked the young parents of America whether they would rather strap their infant child in the back seat of the TrailBlazer or the passenger seat of the Boxster, they would choose the TrailBlazer. We feel that way because in the TrailBlazer our chances of surviving a collision with a hypothetical tractor-trailer in the other lane are greater than they are in the Porsche. What we forget, though, is that in the TrailBlazer you’re also much more likely to hit the tractor-trailer because you can’t get out of the way in time. In the parlance of the automobile world, the TrailBlazer is better at “passive safety.” The Boxster is better when it comes to “active safety,” which is every bit as important.

It reminds me of an example of language usage that I wanted to include in yesterday’s rant. When I was in driver’s education in high school, our instructor was adamant about using the term collision instead of accident. Accident implies something that is out of one’s control, something that just happens. Collision implies an actor, one who causes the collision. His point was that accidents/collisions don’t just happen; they can be prevented, and an alert and safe driver will be able to avoid them, or at least drastically reduce their incidence. The use of the term “accident” in some ways contributes to a culture of learned helplessness, where things just happen.

Gladwell points out that this culture contributes to the success of SUVs. If you will inevitably get in a collision, if you have no control, then the only thing you can do is to armor yourself up as best as you can, which is why people buy SUVs, even though there is no basis for their safety in reality. In fact, they are generally more unsafe because SUVs are treated as trucks and don’t have to meet normal auto safety standards:

In a thirty-five-m.p.h. crash test, for instance, the driver of a Cadillac Escalade–the G.M. counterpart to the Lincoln Navigator–has a sixteen-per-cent chance of a life-threatening head injury, a twenty-per-cent chance of a life-threatening chest injury, and a thirty-five-per-cent chance of a leg injury. The same numbers in a Ford Windstar minivan–a vehicle engineered from the ground up, as opposed to simply being bolted onto a pickup-truck frame–are, respectively, two per cent, four per cent, and one per cent.

I find the whole culture of helplessness a peculiar one. America has such a culture of fear that it is terrified of anything that might be out of their control. Gladwell mentions the Firestone tire recall. The actual number of fatalities associated with that defect was miniscule compared to the number of traffic accidents in a given year. But because it disturbed people’s sense of control over their own safety, it cost Firestone millions of dollars. 9/11 is a similar story. Approximately 3000 people died on that day. A terrible tragedy indeed. However, according to the FBI, 16,037 people were murdered in the U.S. in 2001. Even if you count only the ones in September, that’s about 1300. I think a murder in any form is just as senseless as a terrorist bombing. But Americans were so terrified about the uncontrolled aspect of the bombing that we’re still living in a security state two years later. It doesn’t make sense.

The part that’s really weird is that we live in terror of uncontrolled intrusions into our safety, but don’t want to take control of the aspects of our life that we can control. We want to be given an utterly safe world, which is an impossibility (side note: Gladwell has a great line about the perceived safety of SUVs: “And what was the key element of safety when you were a child? It was that your mother fed you, and there was warm liquid. That’s why cupholders are absolutely crucial for safety. If there is a car that has no cupholder, it is not safe.”). Americans seem to have given up the idea of individual responsibility in this age of litigation. And yet, the phrase “individual responsibility”, when applied to welfare moms, is a big winner on the conservative campaign trail. The whole hypocrisy of America drives me nuts.

Anyway, I’m beating this topic into the ground since most of my readers probably agree with me. Neat article. Read some of Gladwell’s other articles if you have time.

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