In 2019, a team of researchers in Las Vegas set out to show that drivers can be less likely to stop their cars for someone crossing the street in front of them depending on the pedestrian’s skin color or gender. They ran a simple test — they sent a white woman, a white man, a Black woman, and a Black man to cross residential streets in suburban Las Vegas, where the speed limit was 35 mph. Then they took note of which cars hit the brakes and which ones sped on by.
As it turned out, the race and sex differences were vanishingly small. But something else surprised the researchers even more: Most drivers didn’t stop at all. Of the 461 cars they counted, just 129 drivers gave way. That means nearly three-quarters of all drivers kept going, no matter who crossed their paths.
The researchers didn’t know why. They couldn’t go back and interview the drivers. The streets and crosswalks they had selected were standard. But there was one thing they could check: the cost of the car. It was a leap, but one the team agreed was worth checking out. Could the fanciness of the car have anything to do with driver behavior? So the researchers went back to the video of the experiment, identified the cars, and cross-referenced them against Kelley Blue Book values.
The results, published in the Journal of Transport and Health, were startling. The more expensive the car, the less likely the driver was to yield the right of way. The cost of the car, in fact, was the only statistically significant predictor of driver dickishness. For every $1,000 increase in price, a car was 3% less likely to stop. When it comes to driving, as in so many other aspects of life, it appears that entitlement trumps responsibility. “It makes logical sense,” says Courtney Coughenour, a public-health researcher at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who led the study.
You’ve felt it too, right? The roads are wild these days. Deaths of people hit by cars went up 40% from 2009 to 2016, and they jumped 17% during the first year of the pandemic, even though overall miles driven went down. Road-rage gunfire — people literally shooting at each other from cars — are up as well. Some of that is probably COVID brain and the cognitive whiplash of the highways emptying out in 2020 and then filling back up.
But the Las Vegas results hint at another reason the roads have gone Mad Maximal. Something about the car, or about the person driving it, also matters. Anecdotally and statistically, evidence is mounting that driving itself turns people into bad drivers — and that maybe pricier, fancier, bigger cars make them even worse.
If you’re driving a Hummer, everything looks like a nail
Most of the research on driver psychology focuses on traits like attention and situational awareness. Get distracted by something — usually a phone — and your monkey brain can’t keep up. There’s more: Men are more likely than women to be jerks on the road, but older men are less jerky than younger ones. If you have passengers in the car, you drive less aggressively, but you’re also likely to be more aggressive if you’re in a rush and there’s traffic.
But some research has looked at the idea that differences in car type or characteristics might play a role. A 1968 paper in the Journal of Social Psychology reported that people were less likely to honk at a “high status” car, a black 1966 Chrysler Crown Imperial, than they were at a rusty 1954 Ford station wagon. Drivers of cars with less engine noise in the cabin — typically a signifier of a plush ride — tend to drive faster. A 2002 study found that people driving more powerful cars tended to speed, and drivers of cars with more safety features like antilock brakes did risky things like tailgating and pulling into traffic more quickly. And in 2012, psychologists found that drivers of more “upper class” cars like a Mercedes were more likely to cut off other cars at a four-way stop and less likely to yield to people in a crosswalk.
Almost all those results predate the biggest game changer in American driving: the arrival of megatrucks. In 1975, SUVs basically didn’t exist; by 2020, more than half of all passenger vehicles on US roads were either trucks or SUVs. And over the years, their size has increased preposterously. In the 21st century, carmakers all but stopped selling cars weighing under 3,000 pounds — and started selling vehicles twice as heavy. And despite the working-class image of the pickup truck, those bigger rides come with higher status. As of 2020, the median annual household income in the US was $67,521. For SUV owners it’s $97,082, and for truck owners it’s $108,334.
Making cars bigger made them deadlier. The weight and power of SUVs and megatrucks mean they hit harder. Smaller cars hit a pedestrian in the legs, and big trucks tend to hit them in the head. But in a crash, people riding inside a megatruck have a higher survival rate. “There’s some evidence that driving a very large vehicle makes you and your passengers safer. That’s an inducement to buy one,” says Justin Tyndall, an economist at the University of Hawaii who studies driver behavior. “The issue is, in the aggregate, it probably makes us all less safe.” From 2000 to 2019, Tyndall estimates, places with more megatrucks saw more pedestrian deaths — an additional 1,100 deaths nationwide.
The Las Vegas researchers didn’t look at the size of the vehicles they documented. Still, evidence suggests the dramatic spike in deaths isn’t just about physics — it’s also about how people drive them. “Maybe more aggressive people are more likely to buy a more aggressive vehicle and drive it that way,” Tyndall says.
Or maybe our more-dangerous cars are driving us to drive them more dangerously. In a paper that came out in January in the Journal of Consumer Policy, researchers put 49 undergraduates in a sophisticated driving simulator and had them “drive” a route, varying whether they were in a big SUV or a tiny hatchback. The drivers of the bigger car, they found, took more risks — driving faster, braking later, and so on. “They are in a bigger car,” says Bart Claus, a marketing researcher at IÉSEG School of Management in France who was one of the paper’s authors. “They perceive more safety. This changes their behavior.” The less risk to the driver, the more risk we feel willing to take.
A potent cocktail of entitlement and fear
Cars have always been about status. In the early 20th century, they were the playthings of upper-class twits embarking on their own versions of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride around town and country, scaring horses and crushing people. This conflict led to the first real traffic laws. But there was only one problem. “These policies had to be enforced,” says Cameron Roberts, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin who studies sustainability and transportation. “And enforcement involved using the police against rich people, which had never happened before.”
So wealthy car owners banded together to challenge the new laws — even inventing the concept of “jaywalking” to confine people to crosswalks. With the arrival of mass-produced cars in the 1930s, even people in the middle class could afford this new symbol of upper-class entitlement. Cities and road builders “created that system of privilege for roads and car owners,” Roberts says. “And you could buy into that privilege by owning a car.”
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misbehave. “They are more self-centered and more self-involved and take decisions more driven by their own interests and less by the interests of others,” Claus says. “All these things come together in an SUV to create a person who is less nice than the person would be if they were not driving an SUV.”
Carmakers have long sold their products as emblems of freedom. But now, as our vehicles get up-armored on the outside and plusher on the inside, some researchers argue that cars have come to represent safety — shifting “from individualism and freedom to dynamic seclusion in a securitized state,” as one paper puts it. It isn’t hard to imagine how turning cars into “personal security pods” has created a potent cocktail of entitlement and fear. When we drive, we see the world through a windshield-shaped proscenium. If you’re driving a big, expensive vehicle, anything outside your high-status bubble — fortified with flat-screen monitors and heated steering wheels, high above the road — is either a threat to your security or beneath your concern. Either way, in this video-game version of driving, other people and other vehicles might as well be non-player characters. They’re not worth stopping for.
I don’t know whether there’s an answer to all this. The government thinks of “safety” as what happens to people inside the vehicle, and the insurance industry bases its premiums primarily on the track record of individual drivers and how much it costs to repair a given car model. When I told a representative for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry organization, about the research suggesting that people drive less safely in bigger cars, she scoffed. “I don’t believe that,” she told me. “A lot of moms drive SUVs, and they’re driving their kids around cautiously.” So. OK!
You could regulate the size and aggressive design of new SUVs and trucks. You could try to nudge drivers to settle the hell down (though some research suggests intrusive reminders only serve to distract drivers further). You could make crosswalks safer, promote bike riding, build denser and multiuse neighborhoods that don’t require cars to get around, and provide better public transit. A happy neighborhood street that’s too narrow for a Hummer helps with all sorts of issues, including climate, equity, and safety.
But the people who want to drive everywhere and have free parking — i.e., most Americans — tend to oppose that stuff. And self-driving cars won’t help. After all, even a robot that obeys every traffic law and all three Asimovian ones is still going to be powered by a machine-learning algorithm created by a graduate of the Musk-Zuckerberg Program in Engineering Ethics. It’s not a stretch to imagine that fancy self-driving cars will still be bigger and heavier than cheaper models. Perhaps they’ll even be programmed to prioritize the safety of their occupants over anything or anyone they might hit.
The truth is, we’ve built a world in which more or less everyone needs a car to get around. Whether the guy in an F-150 who wants to dominate the road, or the mom in an SUV who wants to keep her kids safe in a collision, we have literally engineered a transportation system that favors aggression and self-interest over mutual goodwill and responsibility. The only way to fix the fact that cars make us unsafe is to reduce the number of cars. As long as we keep building bigger and deadlier ones, drivers will keep driving them in bigger and deadlier ways.
Adam Rogers is a senior correspondent at Insider.