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Do Smart Cars Breed Resentment?

There’s a curious discussion over on the bulletin boards of the Smart car owners site, oriented around the question of whether the drivers of other cars consider it an insult to be passed by a Smart car. Apparently the phrase “passed by a Smart” is highly Google-able.

Most theories seem to revolve around other drivers not considering the Smart a “real car” — i.e., they take umbrage when the smaller vehicle passes them (masculinity issues or some such), or the site of the small car hurtling along at an “impossible” speed makes them think they themselves must be driving slowly.

When I drove the smart in NYC, I found two general reactions: Versions of the above, and then outright, gushing approval (typically from pedestrians, though, more from other drivers). Sometimes people would seem to be upset that I had passed them, as they would then rev their engine to pass. As a side note, I occasionally witness this on a bike as well — drivers desperate to get ahead of me, even as we approach a red light (but a bike will always win because a car has to begin braking sooner, and because a bike can ride in the space in-between of course), almost as if they were trying to valiantly justify their automotive choice, or reclaim its presumed velocity advantage.

(Horn honk to Rick)

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This entry was posted on Thursday, May 28th, 2009 at 9:56 am and is filed under Cars, Cities, Drivers, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

15 Responses to “Do Smart Cars Breed Resentment?”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Years ago I’d get the same reaction in my little geo metro hatchback. People, men generally, in bigger, more expensive cars, would get very angry if I passed them and would go well out of their ways to pass me and show dominance.

  2. Donald Says:

    I can confirm this as a bicyclist. On streets that are not designed for high velocity travel (lots of speed bumps, or as mentioned, on streets with lots of lights) cars get in my way and slow *me* down. To improve my traveling efficiency, I pass them, but they can’t seem to understand how a bicycle could possibly pass a car. So to keep themselves from having to ponder the implications of a more efficient vehicle, they speed up to twice the speed limit, cut in front of me like a maniac, and slam on their brakes at the next stop sign or light as I calmly pull up beside them, laughing to myself.

  3. Jack Says:

    No doubt auto drivers like to demonstrate to cyclists and others that their brake lights work. In my last trip to Germany a few years ago, it was interesting to see all those smart cars speeding through streets with those flashing lights on top. Perhaps the police there don’t have a hang-up on “being too wimpy”.

    The additional envy problem occurs in areas with crowded parallel parking, smart cars could fit in the areas between cars, perpendicular to the curb. Free parking in metered spots!

  4. Leeroy Glinchy Says:

    I have similar experience to Donald on bicycle. I do the same thing _except_ I do not pass the person. If I did, they would pass me again. They have all ready shown themselves to be irrational. Do you want this person passing you again? I want crazy people in front of me where I can see them. I keep a safe distance behind them. Eventually, they will go away. I am just grateful that they didn’t run me over the first time.

  5. fred_dot_u Says:

    One must be cautious about cycling generalities. “because a bike can ride in the space in-between of course” represents a too-common practice of untrained, unskilled and dangerous operators of bicycles.

    In my nearly-daily cycling commutes, I am presented with the “must pass cyclist” behavior of many motorists. It is a source of amusement to pull up behind them at the next light, or often enough at the next three lights in sequence.

    I will not pass a stopped motor vehicle at a traffic light, nor squeeze between them.

    I’ve purchased Traffic… and enjoyed reading it very much, especially from the point of view of a cycling commuter.

    Although being the owner of a Smart ForTwo does not automatically imply an educated, trained or skilled driver, it would appear that such attributes may be getting applied. The anonymity of the “typical” automobile or motor vehicle is reduced by owning a Smart ForTwo or similarly unique vehicle, which may be threatening to other operators, for some unknown reason. Just a thought…

  6. John D. Williams Says:

    Speaking of Google searches, I would offer the number one hit for “best driver in the world” as now not being sarcastic or for racing, but for safety and knowledge.

  7. Crosius Says:

    Funny that this topic should show up today – On my bike-ride into work, I passed a SMART some jerk(s) had tipped sideways in it’s parking space.

    Clearly some people don’t respect them as property, much less as automobiles. I guess tomorrow I’ll get to see how well the SMART’s door stood up to being the “bottom” of the car.

    As far as the whole “mustn’t be passed by a wimpy car” attitude, I see it a lot from both my bike and my KIA. It’s usually people in those hemi-powered “dualie” trucks with the chrome silhouettes on the mud-guards, but I have even been (I believe deliberately on one occasion ) crowded by busses on my bike.

  8. Chris Says:

    We have many Smart cars in my area, and I do see this kind of behavior pretty frequently on I-95. Then again, driving in SW Connecticut is apparently something of a bloodsport. About the only time that I was ever “upset” by a Smart car was the time that I almost rear-ended one on our parking-challenged campus as I was pulling into what I’d thought was an empty parking space; the Smart was pulled so far forward that the space looked unoccupied from the lane in the lot.

  9. Carice Says:

    It’s funny, you even see this in bike on bike interactions. I ride a european style granny bike, and a lot of times people in fancier bikes (this time of year, typically newbies in spandex) will “pass” me as I wait at a stop light, only be surprised as I pass them midblock. Yes it’s a heavy slow bike, yes I’m wearing a skirt, but I do it every day, year round, and a lot of people are surprised (and perhaps chagrined) by how fast I can go.

  10. Lee Watkins Says:

    Yes motorists constantly insist on showing me that their brake lights work when I pass them, which is quite frequently. Many people absolutely can not let a stay ahead of them. What follows is always uncomfortable because they are always still waiting at the light when I get there, and then I have to stand next to the car with the driver leering at me as if to prove a point. And then at the next light. And the next.

    It’s enough to make you want to ride your bike right though the light…

  11. Kevin Love Says:

    Here in Toronto, anyone who chooses to drive a car is well aware that bicycles are much faster. Average peak hour car speed is about 8 km/hr (much slower on some streets), for a bike it is about 25 km/hr.

    On streets that have not yet had proper bicycle lanes installed, I have noticed that traffic lights will result in a mini-critical-mass with a little pack of cyclists being formed by each red light. This enables the little pack to effortlessly take the lane when the signal changes.

  12. Vin Says:

    I’ve never driven a Smart car, but I have noticed this phenomenon in the two cars I’ve owned, both of which would be considered “wimpy” by a subset of the population – an early-90s Volvo, and a late-90s Camry. Particularly in the Volvo, it was not uncommon at all for me to pass someone and see them suddenly accelerate. Even more common, I’d see people go around to pass me as soon as I got on a highway or multi-lane road, only to pass them again once I accelerated to full speed. I really think people just assumed I’d be going slow because of the car I was driving.

    A certain measure of automotive profiling is inevitable, though – I’m always more wary of flashy cars.

  13. bikeolounger Says:

    @Carice: Even better is when I pass them on my ’74 Raleigh Superbe, whilst wearing a kilt.

  14. Dave in KY Says:

    @Bikeolounger, something tells me you don’t get the worst of it, being that you’re big ol’ silver backed gorrilla.

  15. Hemi Hot Rods Says:

    I’ve been thinking about building a blown 354 Hemi powered smart car just to freak people out at the drag strip! What do you guys think? A little over kill?

    Thanks, Patrick

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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