Media Mash: Are Prius Drivers More Obnoxious? New Study Suggests It Just Might Be So

My fascination with cars started when I was 4 years old. I would sit in the front yard of the family house and identify the makes of the cars as they drove by. My parents thought I might be a genius, since they couldn't identify the cars as well as I could. But little did they know, I was like the little kid who shocks you into thinking they are reading at an early age, only to discover they've memorized the words to all his books. Me, I memorized hubcaps.

My first car was a '55 Chevy convertible. It cost $300, which I earned mowing lawns in my working-class New Jersey town. As soon as I hit the road, I immediately started noticing how differently the drivers of different cars behave. Some more obnoxiously, in fact. And it seemed it was almost always the Cadillac drivers who behaved the worst behind the wheel, perhaps thinking, as we used to say, that they "owned the road." Those days were early lessons in class distinctions and tensions.

The sociology of driving manners has always been a small preoccupation of mine. I observed who was driving inconsiderately, and what car they were driving. The Cadillac drivers and their ilk hung on for a long time as the kings of bad manners. But eventually they were taken over by the first rash of SUV drivers, who became the new breed of discourteous, pushy drivers, and who seemed to always drive well over the speed limit.  

We also read dire statistics and stories of what would happen if your small car got smashed by an SUV… certain death. Also how unsafe the SUVs were, because of their increased height—the dark side of being able to see above the traffic meant SUV rollover rates were scarier. The rule of thumb I always remembered was, the closer to the road, the more stable the car. Normal cars were far less likely to roll over, and little sports cars handled the best, but pity if the SUVs didn't see them.

Some years later, the SUVs were partially replaced by pickup trucks, the engine of the U.S. car industry. It became cool for certain personality types to drive powerful pickups too fast, and frankly they scared me more than the SUVs. The trucks added luxuries, and cabins—room for extra passengers. Sometimes the trucks even became the family car. As with four-wheel drive SUVs, many wondered why people needed so much power and size to drive to Whole Foods or bring the kids to daycare. Trucks became lifestyle, fashion and class statements, like SUVs.

Sales of trucks and SUVs slowed at least for a while because of the recession, when even the 1 percent were not buying giant new cars and trucks. Then, the tide turned. The recovery worked for some and the behemoth SUVS emerged with a whole new level of luxury and pricetag. Cars like the Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Suburban and Range Rover climbed back on top the high-end market, replacing the now stodgy SUVS of old. Sales soared.

Perhaps my perspective is a bit warped, because in my apartment building in New York City, I live upstairs from the Trinity School, where many 1 percenters send their kids. The richest of those send drivers to pick up their kids, and the disturbing line of behemoths— Escalades, Range Rovers, Suburbans—stretches out on Columbus Avenue and 91st Street.

Sales of trucks increased dramatically in the last several years, likely because houses were being built again, and carpenters and plumbers were stepping up. Many had held off on purchases for four years or so because of the bad economy. And perhaps those using trucks as personal brand statements were backing off. I suspect those were some of the worst truck drivers. Where were they going? What were they going to drive?

About five years ago, amidst the omnipresence and obnoxiousness of the behemoth cars, I began to notice something peculiar. Some drivers ran red lights more, didn't use turn signals. In California they ignored people in the crosswalks. Lo and behold, these drivers were driving Priuses. In my anecdotal observations, the Prius driver emerged as the most obnoxious driver on the road. (Not all of them, of course. I know a lot of Prius drivers and I am sure they are not obnoxious when they get into their cars.)

Thus I was surprised and felt affirmed when I read an article in Tuesday's New York Times business section titled, "The Rich Drive Differently, a Study Suggests," by Benjamin Preston.

The study was conducted in the Bay Area, where I spend a lot of time. It found that the worst driver behavior was associated with the most expensive cars, with a lot of attention on BMWs. Observations were made of drivers with pedestrians in the crosswalks, and at four-way stop signs to see which cars cut in front of others. Cars were rated 1 to 5, with 5 being the most pricey vehicles, which included Mercedes Benz and BMW, and 1 designating the beatup, low-value cars.

According to Paul Piff, a researcher at the Institute of Personality and Social Research (who knew this even existed?), who conducted the study, eight out of every 10 cars "did the right thing. ...But you see this huge boost in a driver's likelihood to commit infractions in more expensive cars," he said.

Also, male driving behavior was consistently worse than female driving behavior. Another interesting fact was that the beater-car category always stopped for pedestrians.

And here is the clincher: As the Times article says, "In the San Francisco Bay area where the hybrid gas-and-electric-powered Toyota Prius is considered a status symbol among the environmentally conscious, the researchers classified it as a premium model." 

Piff added, "In our higher-status vehicle category, Prius drivers had a higher tendency to commit infractions than most."

Isn't it great when science—or at least some fun version of it—validates what you observe on your own? All those obnoxious Prius drivers cutting me off driving over the Bay Bridge appear to be part of a collective consciousness that makes those drivers feel more privileged. Is it the high gas milage? The sporty design? The feeling that Prius drivers are better than other people, because, well, they drive a Prius? I don't know, and maybe they don't know. But Prius drivers, we are watching you.


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