Will smaller cars mean fewer accidents?

By Felix Salmon
June 1, 2009

Ryan Avent — whom I’m sure has driven much more than I have — has an interesting take on the psychology of the automobile:

I think the psychological result of getting into a car is often unappreciated. A driver — myself included — immediately feels entitled to deference on the road, to that point that they may become actually angry with other drivers, and with the pedestrians and cyclists who insist on making drivers travel somewhat more slowly, or wait to turn right, or generally make the process of commuting less than an unimpeded sprint from point A to point B.

This reminds me of the time when I was riding my bike crosstown on a narrow Manhattan street, and an angry yellow cab started honking aggressively at me from behind. I had nowhere to pull over to, and he got increasingly irate, until I reached the red light and he screeched to a halt beside me. He then proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms that I had no right to be on the road at all. When I pointed out that for all his rushing he would only have wound up at exactly the same red light a few seconds earlier, and wouldn’t have saved any time, he replied that in fact he had the right to run red lights if he wanted to, and I was depriving him of that right.

OK, New York cab drivers can get a bit extreme. But I think that Ryan’s on to something here — despite the fact that I’m actually the opposite way around: I hate driving, precisely because I’m so fearful about the damage I might do to someone else. That said, when I’m on foot or on my bike I hate it when people get in my way: I might not suffer from road rage when I’m in a car, but I certainly do when I’m on a bike. Get out of my bike lane!

I’m no expert on road rage, but I do think that the feeling of invincibility when you’re in a car does increase with the size of that car. Certainly from the point of view of a pedestrian I feel much more intimidated by a huge black Escalade than I do by a Mini, even though they both would do me pretty much the same amount of harm if they hit me at speed. Just sitting above the street life, rather than on the same level as the street life, makes a big — and deleterious — difference. Drive around a city low down in a Lamborghini, and pedestrians will be attracted to you, rather than repulsed from you.

Could it be that as cars get smaller the number of nasty car-on-person accidents will be reduced? One can but hope.

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