Traffic and Class Conflict: The Rich Are Worse Drivers Than You or Me

A study out of Berkeley’s Institute of Personality and Social Research set out to look at social class and unethical behavior. So they started with how we drive.

Batmobile

 

A little while back I wrote about an interesting finding that came out of a recent City of Chicago study on car crashes and pedestrian fatalities: generally speaking, places that have high levels of violent crime tend to also have more fatal crashes involving pedestrians. Turns out this is old-hat in traffic research; this observation has been made many times in many different places throughout the world.

So I was fascinated to see another bit of traffic research correlating cultural milieu with bad driving. This time, some researchers decided to go out and profile some rich people:

The researchers next recorded whether drivers stopped for a person who tried to walk across the junction using a pedestrian crossing. Drivers of the cheapest and oldest cars were most likely to slow down and give way, followed by those in average quality cars. But those in the most prestigious cars drove on regardless of the pedestrian around 45% of the time.

That’s from a new paper out of Berkeley: “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.” Here’s a bit more on their methodology:

The study involved experiments in the real world as well as laboratory scenarios. In the first two experiments, onlookers watched to see whether drivers obeyed traffic laws (and common courtesy); the drivers’ cars were also ranked on a five-point scale, according to prestige, from used Corolla to new Mercedes.

Paul Piff, a social psychologist, and his team at the Institute of Personality and Social Research did other experiments, but due to my obsessions, the fact that they started with traffic behavior interested me. And not just because of my personal obsessions; as a pedestrian, I tend to profile certain cars. I’m tremendously stubborn about crossing if I have right-of-way, even at risk to life and limb, but I’m slightly more on guard with expensive, late model cars. Previously I thought I was crazy and sort of a jerk for thinking it. (Then again, a new Mercedes does accelerate faster than an old Corolla.) But apparently I’m not alone; someone had the bright idea to measure it statistically.

On the other hand, I’m skeptical about cars as a particularly good metric for social class. The wealthiest people I knew growing up drove Volvos and Audis. And these were legitimately wealthy people, not just well-off: a software-company owner with a large, art-filled modern house in the ritziest part of town, an old-money family with a farm that had three houses on it. So they weren’t parsimonious, but they didn’t go in for the sort of public display of wealth that $50,000 cars represent. From my lifetime of anecdata, fancy cars are more likely to reflect a particular attitude toward money than class per se, not to mention driving. People who buy new, expensive cars tend to like driving, which often means driving fast, which means driving aggressively. The Berkeley researchers took several different looks at the issue, but in this instance it seems complicated.

(I’m not going to pretend to be oblivious: they’re also nice cars. The most fun I’ve ever had driving was handling a stick-shift BMW in high-desert California. And my favorite car I’ve ever been in was my friend’s old diesel, baby-blue Mercedes, if not the heaviest than at least the most dense car I have ever been a passenger in.)

This reminded me a bit of other news in Our Cars, Ourselves, this weekend’s “big” “political” “issue": Mitt Romney and his cars. Apparently this is a gaffe:

Two days after Romney told Michigan voters that he drives a Mustang and a Chevy pick-up truck and his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs,” Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked Romney if he understands why voters see him as out of touch.

Mitt Romney is one of the wealthiest men ever to run for president. Not only is he the son of an American business titan, he ran one of the most elite private-equity firms in the industry—like, even among private-equity firms—from which he still draws an unimaginable income. Having four (domestic, kind of boring except for maybe the Mustang) cars is the most I can identify with Mitt Romney. He makes infinity more money than anyone I’ve ever known—in about a day and a half what my household makes in a year—yet only has about twice as many cars as my family had growing up.

If I started making my current annual salary every day, I, uh… well, I’d probably be driving a freaking Batmobile, or at least a 1939 Pontiac Plexiglas Deluxe-Six Ghost Car with white tires. What? It’s domestic.

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