Good, Clean, American “Car”nage

As a lot of you may know, I like to think of myself as little more than a red-blooded American redneck who can maybe spell a little better than your average offspring of first cousins. And while it’s true that my love of guns, BBQ, hunting, fishing, Harleys, pickup trucks, West Virginia, dirt bikes, cheap beer, good bourbon, hayrides, farmers’ daughters (all right, corn-fed state-fair girls) and Southern rock ensure that I’m not a complete fraud in calling myself a “redneck,” in a lot of ways I don’t really have the pedigree to warrant such a classification…

I don’t have a clear favorite out of Ford, Chevy and Dodge (backwoods blasphemy, I know). I don’t know anything about country music, except that all the women that sing it on TV are knockouts. I’ve never smoked a Marlboro or taken a dip of Skoal in my life. And I’ve never been to a rodeo, a NASCAR race, a monster truck rally or a tractor pull — though this isn’t saying I wouldn’t.

However, just a few weeks ago, my “red cred” went up quite a bit when I tagged along with a few colleagues of mine (yep — writers, editors, and marketers from the Big City) down to damn near the southern tip of Maryland to attend that glorious, uproarious, calamitous and cacophonous Ben Hur of redneck-dom…

The demolition derby.

And I learned something there. Other than that I’ve been missing out for years on one of the most exciting nights a man can have with his pants on, I mean. I learned that all along, despite the scorn, vitriol and derision of many sincere, earnest men and women (and more than a few Whiskey & Gunpowder readers, I might add), I’ve been absolutely right in steadfastly defending America’s tendency to over-consume fuel in outsized vehicles every day on our nation’s highways. Keep reading to find out why…

Lessons of the Junkyard Battle Royal

First, a few words about the event itself. I went into the experience kind of lukewarm — I thought I knew what to expect, and that I would be pretty bored by it. Not so at all. Honestly, it was one of the best nights of good, clean American fun I’ve ever had. But beyond this, it was a valuable real-world lesson in the kinetic realities of colliding vehicles, the third such lesson that I’ve experienced first-hand.

The other two were accidents. In the first of these, I was rear-ended at a stoplight by an enormous conversion van traveling at about 40 mph. The impact compressed my much-smaller VW Jetta by three feet, flattening the driver’s seat (with me in it) and propelling what was left of the car more than 75 yards forward. Needless to say, I was hospitalized.

The second of these was just last spring, when a streamlined small car traveling downhill at better than 50 mph skidded across the center line of a rural road and totaled my much larger pickup. The entire side of my truck was annihilated (the rear axle was actually dislodged and laying in the road), yet the driver’s compartment was basically intact. Aside from some airbag burns, I was unhurt — a fact that I attribute not only to my 4-by-4’s greater mass, but also its height above the road…

Here’s what I mean: Like a giant wedge, the impact of the much lower, drop-nosed car lifted the driver’s side of my truck significantly as it tore its way down the length of it. The simple physics of this actually kept me safe by elevating me ABOVE the kinetic path of the crash. Had I been in a similar-sized, low-to-the-ground car and sustained the same head-on corner impact without benefit of my truck’s (it could just as well have been an SUV — I also owned a 4-Runner at the time) greater height, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d have been killed or grievously injured.

Both of these incidents taught me the same basic lessons: 1) Bigger vehicles almost always fare better in crashes with smaller ones, and 2) Sometimes extra height and a higher center of gravity is an advantage in an accident — despite the mainstream’s hysteria over things like “rollover risk” among trucks and SUVs.

And sure enough, I saw ample proof of these principles in action yet again at the demolition derby. At the event I went to, vehicles were grouped by size. There was an import/small car class, a medium-sized “sedan” class, a truck/SUV class, and a “pro modified” class, which was (not surprisingly) made up exclusively of large, old, heavy domestic four-doors and station wagons…

When the starting horn sounds, they have at each other, the goal being to be the last vehicle that’s mobile in a smallish, barrier-sided crash arena. It’s fearsome “car”-nage, to be sure, and immensely entertaining — but it’s also very educational. Watching these vehicles of various sizes and weights smashing into each other from all angles really gives you a sense of what they can sustain, and what they can’t.

For instance, the imported/small car class, though being perhaps the most exciting to watch (front-drive and short wheelbases make them much more maneuverable in the demolition arena), really shows you just how mangled and bent up these uni-bodied vehicles get in even low-speed impact situations — and remember, this is only when pitted in combat against like-sized vehicles…

Contrasting this to the enormous, bone-jarring abuse that pickups, vans and SUVs can drive away from in their own weight class really makes an impression on you. And when you imagine what the end result would be like in a high-speed, real-world demolition derby between SUVs and smaller, imported cars, it’s easy to see why so many Americans choose these larger vehicles, gas prices be damned. It’s because they’re smart.

And some pretty compelling numbers are on their side…

Blood is Thicker than Oil

To hear the mainstream media tell it, trucks and SUVs (especially) are the root of all evil. They’re inefficient, they say. Their extra size makes those who drive them less considerate of others, they say. They’re more dangerous, they say…

Well, that’s not necessarily what the numbers reveal. Consider:

• According to data from the virulently anti-SUV National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) summarized by the Online Lawyer Source, SUVs account for 25% of the vehicles sold in America — yet they’re statistically involved in only 3% of the accidents.

• Using the only truly objective method for comparatively gauging vehicle safety — the number of fatalities per mile — small cars are more than twice as deadly as SUVs (7.85 to 3.79 deaths per billion miles driven). Again, this is according to the NHTSA’s own data from 1996-2000.

Now, the anti-freedom green crowd would be quick to point out that the more SUVs there are on the roads, the more hazardous it is to be in a small car — which could inflate the incidence of fatalities among passenger car wrecks. And indeed, the numbers bear this out: In car-SUV collisions, you’re more than four times as likely to be killed in the car as in the SUV…

Which decisively proves my point: That driving an SUV might not be totally “fair” in the risk-of-death department compared with other vehicles — but it’s definitely a smart play if staying alive is your goal, increased “rollover” risk or not.

It’s my impression that more and more people — especially leftist urbanites — think we should ban SUVs to not only “save the Earth,” but also to make smaller, more fuel-efficient cars comparatively safer to drive. But I’d like to remind these folks that other vehicles aren’t the only collision dangers out there on our highways. There are bridge abutments, roadway debris, animals, light poles, sign posts, etc. Common sense tells us that these collisions are better survived in SUVs, as well…

And let’s not forget this little fact: There are more tractor-trailers on American roads today than ever before. The boom in over-the-road trucking has been exponential over the last 30 years — and with more Targets, Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs cropping up all over the country to sell us ever more made-in-China crap to fill up our bloated, overpriced homes, this trend will only continue. The likelihood that the average driver will be involved in a crash with one of these behemoths will NOT decrease if SUVs were ever to be banned.

Bottom Line: If you’re going to get sandwiched against a concrete highway barrier by an 18-wheeler whose driver fell asleep delivering some trailer load of lead-painted toys or toxic pet food from the Far East, do you want to be in a Toyota Prius or a GMC Yukon?

Crashin’ the (Green) Party

Listen, you folks know that I’m all about freedom, and that I’m basically a live-and-let-live sort. As such, I say this:

If a bunch of eco-freaks want to die for their cause on America’s roads like so many Kool-Aid-drunk lemmings put-putting toward a cliff in a fleet of hybrid-electric roller skates, far be it from me to tell them they can’t. I would NEVER endorse a ban on small, lightweight cars simply because they’re deathtraps — even though such a measure would make eminent sense…

After all, it’s a free country. And we’re still free to be stupid in it, by golly.

By the same token, I could never tolerate a government telling Americans who make sensible choices to protect their lives and families that they don’t have the freedom to drive the safest vehicles because it’s unfair to those who aren’t smart enough to look after themselves — or because it may arguably be slightly better for the environment.

But that’s where we’re headed. Already, some U.S. states are mulling or have enacted tax breaks and other incentives to those who buy and drive smaller, more fuel efficient (read: hybrid) cars. It’s only a matter of time before the opposite extreme happens — people will have to pay taxes or surcharges for driving larger, less fuel-stingy vehicles. It may already be happening in some places, I don’t know for sure…

If you ask me, this kind of thing is yet another example of the government putting dollars (and politicians putting image) before lives. By influencing people’s decisions in any way toward less safe vehicles, the blood’s on their hands whenever someone dies in one of them.

Beyond this, I just don’t think it would be the same if the roar and fearsome, crunching power of the great American Saturday night demolition derby were replaced with the anemic buzzing and bumping of a bunch of glorified golf carts…

Although, come to think of it, I’d imagine that would be satisfying on an altogether different level.

Campaigning against the real carnage,

Jim Amrhein
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

August 28, 2007

The Daily Reckoning