The latest New Yorker has a piece by Malcolm Gladwell on sport utility vehicles that is fascinating. Long story short: SUVs aren’t as safe as many smaller, more nimble cars; but they sell because the give drivers the feeling that they’re safer; and– and here Gladwell goes from just really smart to brilliant– they reflect a belief that what makes drivers safe are passive measures like, well, giant hulks of steel, rather than their own intelligence and quick reflexes.
Though I wonder to what degree our obsession with safety devices– side-impact airbags, booster seats for children, etc.– subtly encourages this reliance on passive rather than active devices. I’d far rather be in a BMW Z3 than an Expedition in a bad road situation (though truth be told, I’d love to be in a Z3, period!), but I still want those air bags and smart restraints.
I’ve been thinking (in my post-Axelrod, Evolution of Cooperation-addled state) that the flourishing of SUVs can be explained in terms of a bad Prisoners’ Dilemma strategy (or as a tragedy of the commons): it reflects a belief that defection is superior to cooperation as a strategy for survival on the roads. Vehicles that pose a threat to other vehicles– because of their weight, their bulk, and their poor handling– are anti-social technologies, and their adoption reflects a belief that individual success must come at the expense of the collective good.