Bradsher, Keith: High and Mighty: the dangerous rise of the SUV.
Article Type: Book Review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Llovet, Diego
Pub Date: 12/22/2004
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2004 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: High and Mighty: the Dangerous Rise of the SUV (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Bradsher, Keith
Accession Number: 129248103
Full Text: Bradsher, Keith High and Mighty: the dangerous rise of the SUV New York: Public Affairs, 2004. 488 pp. ISBN: 1-58648-203-3

High and Mighty is an overview of how Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) became an acceptable substitute for cars as family vehicles both in the United States and the rest of the world. Based in Detroit, Bradsher extensively covered the major events and trends of the auto industry and market for The New York Times. In his five year tenure as Bureau Chief, he was taken by "the rise of the SUV", something he initially regarded as merely a new kind of consumption behavior of affluent families and as a source of renewed prosperity in a weakened economy. However, his treatment of the SUV grew critical as he began to see them as a dangerous presence on the road. Cars are safe and environmentally responsible, whereas SUVs are just the opposite, he argues, which explains the concern for the replacement of the former with the latter at the heart of his book.

Sometimes skillfully, sometimes gracelessly, Bradsher explains why SUVs are not good substitutes for cars and how such a regressive development was both made possible and stimulated. In the first part of the book, he traces the history of the SUV from its beginnings as a 4-wheel-drive light truck mainly used for work purposes and disliked by urban consumers, until today, when such truck-like vehicles have taken up a large portion of the family luxury auto market. This includes a description of companies' failed early attempts and later astounding success to turn light-trucks into objects of urban desire, a process whose landmarks are presented as products of the combination of varying arrangements of actors (unions, congressmen, parties, presidential candidates, auto executives, market researchers, regulators and lobbyists) and particular circumstances (oil prices, elections, consumers' power). Praise should go to Bradsher's balanced account: not too much agency, not too much structure.

In the second part, Bradsher presents the disadvantages of the SUV vis-a-vis the car as a family vehicle. Behind the image of SUV's comfort and luxury promoted by the industry, Bradsher argues, lies their "dark side". In a highly technical vein, he explains that unlike cars, these vehicles are hard to handle, unstable, and prone to rolling over; their design, height and weight are unreasonably deadly for pedestrians, car occupants and SUV passengers themselves; they deepen social inequality by transferring insurance costs to car owners; and are responsible for undue erosion of cities' infrastructure and environmental pollution. In the closing section, Bradsher advances some prospects for the SUV and proposes measures to either resituate the car as the family transportation of choice or to turn the SUV into a vehicle compatible with the car in terms of safety, environmental and social standards.

If credit should be granted to Bradsher for proposing an interesting research topic-the withering away of the car-, his prose seems to undermine the inquiry's potential appeal. Bradsher distrusts the reader; he explains to exhaustion, goes over the facts at length and makes sure the reader gets the point; his argument is presented as absolutely transparent and there is no room for doubt or questions. By the time the reader finishes the book, she has either understood, misunderstood, or chosen not to understand.

However, the sense of alarm and outrage that grounds his prose and sanctions his incapacity to convey uncertainty is not an argument for dismissal. On the contrary, his discomfort translates into a firm commitment to the car over the SUV that indirectly produces a theory of the relationship between the car and the (desirable) city. Briefly put, the car is presented as the flesh the material support-of this city's cherished values of certainty and safety for all its dwellers. The car not only stands for, but fundamentally grants to individuals the possibility of both a free and regulated non-Darwinian social existence. Other lovers of the city like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, and more recently fellow journalist Joel Garreau have also been stimulated by the presence of the car in the city and offered theories that even today are widely respected and often recalled in discussing the city in casual occasions, academia and political decision-making. The fact that Bradsher defined this old concern of urban studies in a novel way that drew wide attention from the general public is a wake-up call to a new sociological problem which urban studies should not ignore.

Diego Llovet

Department of Sociology

York University/Culture of Cities Project
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.