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High and Mighty: SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way by Keith Bradsher


Rating: (Recommended)


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Pigs on Stilts

Readers who get as far as the subtitle have a pretty clear understanding of Keith Bradsher’s point of view in his book, High and Mighty. As a transportation reporter for The New York Times, Bradsher has covered Detroit for years, and knows a thing or two about the auto industry. Over hundreds of pages, Bradsher lays out the story of why SUVs are dangerous, all the players who helped them get that way, and why they are so popular for car buyers.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction (pp. xix to xx):

“Picking the most offensive SUV ad is hard, because there are so many candidates. My favorite is the nearly full-page newspaper ad that Cadillac ran for its huge Escalade in early 1999. The Escalade was photographed from a point about five feet in front and about two feet off the ground, so that the vehicle’s huge grill  looms over the viewer. The windshield above is entirely black, giving no hint of who inside is bearing down on the viewer. Trees are a blur of motion around the sides of the vehicle but the SUV itself is in perfect focus as it hurtles forward. It looks just like what you might see in the last second of your life as you looked out the side window of your car and suddenly realized that a big SUV had failed to stop for a red light.

The text of the ad is even more frightening. “Yield,” it commands at the top, in inch-high, underlined letters. In half-inch letters under the Escalade is another warning, delivered in parentheses: "(Please Move Immediately To The Right)" The large type text below continues in the same tone: "You might as well give in now. Because this is the new Cadillac Escalade. The one luxury SUV so powerfully built and intelligently equipped, it's designed to be, well, irresistible. With the standard go-everywhere support of the OnStar system. Escalade brings you virtually unlimited personal concierge services, emergency assistance and directions, right at your fingertips. And no other SUV in the world can make that claim. So tell the other luxury SUVs to yield the right of way. Because Escalade is coming through."

Underneath was the Escalade slogan, in white lettering against a solid black box. "Escalade: It's Good To Be The Cadillac."

You might be more likely to survive if you were in the Cadillac in the ad than in whatever lower-riding car it was about to hit. But few people reading the ad carefully could possibly conclude that "to be the Cadillac" was "good" in a moral sense. Nor is it good for public safety and the environment to have even some people "be the Cadillac" in the sense of this ad.

The ad's advice for other drivers to yield is actually pretty good advice, however, as the Escalade can be a hard vehicle to control even for an experienced driver. The steering is sluggish, the suspension vague and the brakes not as effective as car brakes. I climbed in one of the early Escalades in early 1999 at Detroit's airport for a test drive, but was so appalled by its unresponsive steering that I drove straight home. I called Cadillac and asked them to pick up the vehicle and take it away. Cadillac has improved the Escalade somewhat since I first drove it, but it still has the nimbleness and ride quality of a pig on stilts.”

Bradsher does stop his tirade with the vehicles, the manufacturers or the politicians. He also takes a swipe at the buyers, or, as he would put it, describes what the car companies’ focus groups tell them about SUV buyers (p. 101):

“Who has been buying SUVs since automakers turned them into family vehicles? They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors or communities.

No, that’s not a cynic talking – that’s the auto industry’s own market researchers and executives.”  

For readers prepared to take Bradsher’s one-sided messages seriously, there are many myths about SUVs that Bradsher debunks, as follows (p. 427):

SUVs are safer than cars.

SUVs are good choices for young drivers.

Rollovers happen to people who drive recklessly but are of little concern for responsible drivers.

If a drunk driver starts drifting across the centerline toward you, you are better off in an SUV than in a car.

Vehicles with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive have more effective brakes than two-wheel-drive vehicles.

SUVs must be safe vehicles because the overall rate of traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven in the United States has inched down during the last decade even as SUV sales have soared.

Riding up high improves visibility and allows the driver to anticipate trouble ahead.

The safety problems of SUVs are “growing pains” that will diminish as safer models come on the marker in the next few years.

Only an SUV can provide the room that families with children need.

SUV air pollution does not matter because they are less dirty than the cars of a generation ago.

The rise of SUVs is a principal cause of global warming

SUVs are unimportant to global warming.

SUVs need to have primitive gas-guzzling engines to provide the necessary power for towing large objects.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

If you’re an SUV owner or lover, High and Mighty will raise your blood pressure. If you hate SUVs, High and Mighty will give you all the facts you need to communicate to others exactly why you hate those pigs on stilts.

Steve Hopkins, April 19, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: and Mighty.htm


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