Study: Hummers get the most tickets

An insurance research firm has found that drivers of that icon of climate-trashing excess, the Hummer, are more likely to get traffic tickets than drivers of any other vehicle.

By , Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor

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    A Hummer becomes momentarily airborne during the 2008 Dakar Rally.
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An insurance research firm has found that drivers of that icon of climate-trashing excess, the Hummer, are more likely to get traffic tickets than drivers of any other vehicle.

The San Francisco company Quality Planning studied moving violations issued to drivers of various models in the United States and found that drivers of the Hummer H2 and H3 were 4.63 times more likely than the average driver to be ticketed.

Then comes Quality Planning's armchair psychology:

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Speculating why certain vehicles (and their drivers) are ticketed more or less frequently is a subject of great debate. The driver behind the wheel of one vehicle may be eager to express his individuality, while another views his vehicle as nothing more than a way to get from A to B. Mark S. Foster, author of "A Nation on Wheels: The Automobile Culture in America Since 1945," offered his assessment on the statistics: "Hummer drivers feel like kings of the road because of their elevated driving position. As these statistics show, they are leading the pack when it comes to violating the law, which may reflect their driving attitude."
"The sense of power that Hummer drivers derive from their vehicle may be directly correlated with the number of violations they incur," said Dr. Raj Bhat, president of Quality Planning. "Or perhaps Hummer drivers, by virtue of their driving position, are less likely to notice road hazards, signs, pedestrians, and other drivers."

Read carefully, and you'll see two distinct hypotheses lurking in these paragraphs:

Hypothesis #1: Hummers make people drive like jerks

As Dr. Bhat alludes, the blind spots created by the Hummer's height, gun-slit windows, and tailgate-mounted spare tire are legendary. The design of the vehicle makes it easier to miss things like road signs, pedestrians, and bloggers on scooters.

A 2004 New Yorker article about SUVs by Malcolm Gladwell suggests that many of the features of big SUVs – the height, the four-wheel drive, the sound insulation – tend to rob drivers of feedback, making them think that they are safer than they actually are. As I suggested in a post back in June, it's possible that drivers are actually safest when they feel a little unsafe.

The height could be particularly troublesome. In his fascinating book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), journalist Tom Vanderbilt cites studies that show that drivers seated at higher eye sights tend to drive faster than those at lower heights. The farther you are from the ground, writes Mr. Vanderbilt, the better you can to make out the texture of the road, which gives you a better sense of how fast you are going.

Vanderbilt also notes studies that show that SUV and pickup drivers tend to speed more than others, although in an endnote he cautions these findings could be confounded by the fact that these vehicles tend to be driven by males, who generally to drive faster than females. This brings us to...

Hypothesis #2: Jerks are more likely to drive Hummers

A 2000 New York Times article by Keith Bradsher compared the personality differences between SUV drivers and minivan drivers:

Strategic Vision, a market research company in San Diego that does a lot of work for the auto industry, has found that a greater percentage of minivan buyers than sport utility buyers are involved in their communities and families. Minivan buyers are more likely than buyers of any other kind of vehicle to attend religious services and to do volunteer work, while sport utility buyers rank with pickup truck buyers and sports car buyers as the least likely to do either, the company found in a survey this spring of 19,600 recent buyers, including 5,400 minivan and sport utility buyers. A greater percentage of sport utility buyers dine at fine restaurants, go to nightclubs and sports events, and work out.
Auto Pacific Inc., an auto market research company in Santa Ana, Calif., found in another large survey this spring that sport utility buyers placed a lower value than minivan buyers on showing courtesy on the road. Sport utility buyers were more likely to agree with the statement, ''I'm a great driver,'' and to say that they drove faster than the average motorist.

Mr. Bradsher went on to spin this article into a 2004 book, High and Mighty: SUVs – The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way.

But this psychology applies to drivers of all SUVs, not Hummers. It's worth noting that the Quality Planning study found that the second-most ticketed car, with its drivers getting 4.60 times the average, is the Toyota's little Scion tC coupe (this probably has to do with the average driver of this vehicle being under 25 years old).

No other SUV makes the top ten list. And three SUVs – the Chevy Suburban, the Chevy Tahoe, and the Buick Rainier – actually make the bottom 10 list, with those drivers getting far less tickets than average. So it seems that simply driving a big vehicle isn't enough to make you drive in such a way that gets you more traffic tickets.

But maybe there's something specifically about the Hummer, beyond its size and handling, that encourages aggression. In his Times article, Bradsher quotes the French-born cultural anthropologist, G. Clotaire Rapaille, who has worked as a consultant to DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and General Motors:

Sport utilities are designed to appeal to Americans' deepest fears of violence and crime, Dr. Rapaille said. People's earliest associations with sport utilities are wartime Jeeps with machine guns mounted on the back, he explained. Sport utilities are ''weapons'' and ''armored cars for the battlefield,'' he said.
Detroit advertising agencies have looked at buying the rights to make television commercials from the ''Mad Max'' series of movies, and inserting footage of sport utilities into movie scenes showing combat in the Australian desert by bloodthirsty, leather-clad biker gangs in masks, Dr. Rapaille said.

Can you think of any commercially available vehicle that has more military connotations, that would look less out of place battling post-apocalyptic hoodlums, than a Hummer?

None of this is to say that all, or even most, people who drive GM's behemoth are antisocial thugs. In 2001, a group of Hummer owners organized HOPE: Hummer Owners Prepared for Emergencies, a group of Red Cross-trained Hummer drivers willing to volunteer their skills and wheels in the event of natural disasters (such as those caused by climate change, for example).

For what it's worth, the least ticketed car, according to the study, is the Jaguar XJ, whose drivers are only one-tenth as likely be ticketed as the average driver. And ironically they are probably far more likely than the average driver to be able to afford a traffic ticket and a hike to their insurance premiums.

[Hat tip: LA Times Up to Speed Blog]

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