RECENTLY, my teen-age son saw a Honda Civic that had just been hit by a Chevrolet Suburban. The Civic had been traveling on the straightaway and the Suburban had come out from a side street and hit the back of the smaller car, sending it hurtling across a nearby field like a corkscrew.
He said it was obvious that the "jaws of life" used by rescue workers had been necessary to extract the Honda's driver and that when he looked at the interior of the car, it was splattered with blood. "You know," he said, "the really sick thing is that the driver of the Suburban probably went home and bragged to everyone that his SUV had barely a dent." Prophetic words.
Last week, my son was stopped at an intersection, waiting to make a legal U-turn, left-turn indicator flashing. His Honda had recently been painted Sunkist orange. Everyone teased him that his must be the most visible car on the road, so he'd better watch his driving.
As he waited for the traffic to clear so that he could make his turn, he was smashed from behind by a Land Rover. The little orange Civic was pushed forward into the intersection, but fortunately nothing was in its path, and my son was not hurt.
When the driver of the Land Rover got out of her truck to survey the damage to both vehicles, she saw that the bumper of the Land Rover had smashed the Civic at the level of its hatchback. There was broken glass, bent metal, a ruined paint job. Her insurance company would later declare the Civic a total loss.
Her SUV, however, was relatively unscathed. "It's a tank!" she exulted, pointing to the Land Rover. "That's why I bought it! It's a tank!"
So involved was she in admiring the brawn of her truck that she never even bothered to apologize to my son for what she had done to his car, which had been painted with his summer's earnings.
When my son asked her what had happened, she replied that she hadn't seen him. "How could you not have seen me?" he asked. "My car is orange. Were you talking on your cell phone?"
"No, I wasn't," she replied. "But I own the shop across the street, and I drive up and down this street 10 times a day, and I'm not used to seeing cars waiting at this intersection."
Clearly, she took no responsibility for what she had just done. How dare he be where she was not expecting him to be?
The past several years have seen a rapid increase in the number and size of SUVs. Rationalizing the obscene fuel consumption and pollution potential of these behemoths, people will say that they drive SUVs because they are safe. Safe for whom? Of course, they reason, the bigger the safer -- participating in the automotive equivalent of an arms race.
Having driven an old Beetle convertible many years ago, I was acutely aware that I would definitely get the worst of any collision, and learned to drive defensively. There was no point in taking chances.
Many SUV drivers, however, perceive themselves to be so well protected that they are less than cautious on the road. If you see yourself as the predator and not the prey, defensive driving is not as important, and vigilance decreases.
Who hasn't seen an SUV driver maneuvering his truck on the snow as if it were a Lotus sports car, just to show off what it could do? "After all," goes the reasoning, "If I crash into another car, I'll probably be fine."
In the volume, "Pirke Avot" (The Ethics of the Fathers), Rabbi Hillel, who lived about 2,000 years ago, is quoted: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I?"
I do not wish to imply that all SUV drivers are as inconsiderate and self-absorbed as the driver of that infamous Land Rover; I am sure that many are not.
If, however, people insist on driving mobile fortresses despite the disastrous ecological implications, it is incumbent upon them to be more -- not less -- cautious in their driving, keeping in mind the damage they can do to conventional automobiles and their occupants.
Unless, of course, they are only for themselves. Then, what are they?
Lissa Rotundo teaches biology at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and lives in Wyman Park.