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Study: Car Sticker Price is a Predictor of Driver Aggression Towards Walkers

Source: Creative Commons
The higher the

The higher the sticker price on the car, the more likely the driver is to threaten a pedestrian's life.

University of Nevada researchers videotaped pedestrians navigating Las Vegas streets under what might seem like the best possible road conditions for walkers: a sunny day with great visibility, on an open road studded with 35 mile-per-hour speed limit signs and school zone warnings for a nearby elementary school, with the pedestrian crossing in a clearly designated mid-block crosswalk and wearing an easy-to-spot red t-shirt.  Then researchers reviewed the tape and made a note of which drivers still failed to yield to foot traffic until the last possible moment — and then they looked up the Kelley Blue Book value on the scofflaw drivers' cars.

The result? Most drivers didn't yield at all — and the more expensive the cars got, the more often the driver failed to hit the brakes. For every extra $1,000 on the sticker, the driver was three percent less likely to let pedestrians pass safely.

That observation held true whether the pedestrian was white or black, female or male. Drivers were even less likely to yield for African-American participants — they only did so a shockingly low 25 percent of the time, compared to the 31 percent of drivers who braked for white participants. And they were least likely to yield for African-American men, confirming the findings of previous studies. 

The media promptly exploded with news of the study, and safe streets proponents across the country echoed the researchers' speculation that the spendy-cars-drivers failed to yield because they "felt a sense of superiority over other road users." But why, exactly, did BMW drivers feel superior to those poor schmucks out walking in 100 degree Vegas heat? Twitter users had one idea: because they're all rich psychopaths who don't care about poor people, and pedestrians are usually at least perceived to be poor.

But other advocates believe the study points to a larger and thornier problem: the fact that virtually everything about our car-focused world tells drivers that they're the rulers of the road. Expensive cars only amplify that sense of entitlement to public space and aggression towards pedestrians who violate it.

It should be noted, for instance, that researchers did not survey the dangerous drivers to see how much they actually paid for their cars — they only noted the Blue Book value of the vehicles they saw on the road. With auto loans ballooning to historic highs and long term, sub-prime auto loans easier to get than ever, there's a good chance that even the drivers of the flashiest rides weren't actually Mr. (or Ms., or Mx.) Moneybags.

So if the wealthy's well-studied tendency to behave more cruelly to people they perceive to be poor doesn't explain the data in the Vegas study, what does? Further research is needed, but looking at the externalities that influence car price and road design provide a few clues.

Big cars mean big car payments — and they also mean big driver aggression

We don't know whether the vehicles that almost mowed down walkers in Vegas were zippy little sports cars or hulking Hummers. But what we do know is that bigger a car gets, the more expensive it tends to be — and between that and the fact that the percentage of SUVs and light trucks on our roads is rising, there's a pretty good chance that a lot of those scofflaw drivers were piloting some pretty big rigs. The average cost of a small sedan was $7,114 in 2019, compared with $10,839 for a pickup.

SUV drivers were found to be the most aggressive among drivers of all vehicle types in a 2013 study that was frequently cited in coverage of the rise in SUV-related pedestrian fatalities. Advocates have long speculated that large cars amplify driving aggression because they place drivers so far above the road that they can't see a pedestrian's face clearly – and recognizing another person's emotions on their face is a key ingredient of empathy. 

When road design sends a deadly message

But even the driver of a smaller expensive car has lots of reasons to believe she's got a right to drive fast without stopping — because nearly everything about our road design standards suggests that those pesky pedestrians don't belong in the street.

Even in the so-called "ideal" road conditions of the Vegas study, researchers noted that pedestrians had to walk across four vehicle lanes — and Nevada law requires each of those lanes to be at least 12 feet wide. Safe streets advocates have long argued that a 10-foot lane is vastly safer for pedestrians, because drivers tend to go faster the wider the travel lane is, and faster driving speeds = more dead walkers. By designing wide roads with wide lanes and way more space for cars than people, engineers send a subconscious message to drivers that it's okay to go fast — and that folks on foot should get out of their way.

'But I paid for this road — and pedestrians didn't!'

But auto-focused road design influences every driver. So why is a guy with a shiny new Audi less likely to yield to walkers than a guy with a late-model Chevy?

One guess: if the drivers of expensive cars are wealthy, they probably think they paid more for that road they're driving on than the pedestrian in the crosswalk did — and by that logic, Richie Rich might think that freeloading pedestrian in his path is functionally trespassing on the taxpayer's property.

A 2016 study showed that drivers often  overestimate how much of their road network their gas taxes really pay for, and many of them believe drivers pay the full costs of street construction and maintenance. (Spoiler: they really, really don't!) And if you've ever been to a public meeting about lowering neighborhood speed limits, you've probably heard a car enthusiast say some version of this: "I'm a taxpayer in this city, and I probably pay more taxes than most of these damn cyclists or pedestrians who've never bought a gallon of gas in their life. I paid for my roads — and I deserve to get use them to get where I'm going without being slowed down!

The Vegas study suggests that these attitudes might not just be the single most annoying thing ever. They may also be getting pedestrians killed.

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