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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I’m with you. Cars bring out the worst in people. And SUVs amplify that. 40 mph in an SUV feels like 20 regular car. And 30 mph in a racing kart* feels like 80 mph. Must be the height. Something about cornering too.

http://images.google.com/images?q=racing +kart

“even though they both would do me pretty much the same amount of harm if they hit me at speed.”

I’ve heard that this isn’t the case. The Mini would hit you in the legs and knock you back onto its hood. The SUV would hit you in the shoulder and knock you forward onto the street, which is more likely to be fatal.

Posted by cjh | Report as abusive

Your post stracthes the surfaces of a concept I recently realized: the hidden subsidy the country provides the automobile.

Whenever there’s debate about public funding for mass transit, a substantial, vocal lobby argues taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize it. Nevermind that cars, roads, etc. are heavily dependent on taxes.

We collectively agree to traffic laws (speed limits, no tailgating) for order and safety. However, these laws are often disregarded. We subsidize the car-driving masses with our tolerance to insane driving behavior.

How much longer would your commute take if you followed all speed limits, came to a complete stop and all stops signs, yielded to pedestrians at cross walks, and never ran any red lights? I think people would be more receptive to mass transit if their commute times jumped 25-50%. (Obviously, that % range is a guess.)

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

Its a good thing to hope for but I don’t think the number of accidents will go down because smaller cars. Their impact may go down but not the number itself.

I am going to agree with the points some other commenters brought up, smaller cars do less damage than SUV’s to pedestrians and that the higher you are off of the ground, the slower you feel you are going at a given actual speed.

A really good book on all of this is “Traffic” by Tom Vanderbilt. He gives citations for the studies that show both of these points, and generally talks about the psychology behind why people feel entitled to the road.

I like to say it has changed how I actually drive, but I still be a jerk.

Posted by Bradford Holden | Report as abusive

This article is spot on. Even mild mannered people, such as an elementary school teacher I know, change personalities totally in a car. I’m not saying they would intentionally cause an accident, but they DEFINITELY see their choices differently and are more likely to make agressive moves that make accidents more likely.

Posted by Joe | Report as abusive

I totally argee with you, come to Malaysia, where people are very polite & courteous, but when they are behind wheels they will morph into the devil

Posted by exdriver | Report as abusive

I don’t have a citation for this, but I’ve heard from multiple sources that studies have been done that yielded evidence that smaller cars will increase traffic accident fatalities. So, even if they don’t kill as many pedestrians, and/or create a more placid driving experience, the result may be a wash.