It’s probably true you can tell a lot about people from the car they drive. Bill Morrissey’s 1989 album Standing Eight contains the song “Car and Driver,” with lyrics that include “I got a Mercedes-Benz with MD plates/I have no trouble finding dates” and “My BMW draws applause/Because I’m not bound by traffic laws.”
Of course, the song also references the driver with a “Cadillac the size of an Amtrak train/When I drive I take two lanes.”
But it’s the German drivers we tend to demonize, and with some justification, apparently. Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Berkeley, actually studied the association of wealth and ethics or moral behavior.
In one revealing part of the study, researchers noted car models and whether their drivers at four-way intersections (with stop signs all around) crossed before (as legally required) waiting their turn. The results: “A binary logistic regression indicated that upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic.”
In a second section, researchers studied whether the upper crust would cut off pedestrians at crosswalks. Bingo. They were “significantly” more likely to drive through without yielding to the poor walker.
Piff told me that his findings overall “showed that drivers of more expensive vehicles––such as late-model BMWs and Mercedes, among many others––were more likely to break the law by either cutting in front of other drivers at a four-way intersection (Study 1) or an experimenter posing as a pedestrian waiting to cross at a crosswalk (Study 2).” Piff says plainly, “Fancy cars were less likely to stop. BMW drivers were the worst.”
A Reddit poster would certainly agree. He describes being forced onto the road shoulder by a misbehaving BMW X5. “I know these personal experiences can’t be indicative of every luxury vehicle owner,” Wisecow wrote. “But, generally, I can’t get over my feelings on how much more arrogant and self-important luxury vehicle drivers are.”
I was personally offended recently when a gas-powered Mercedes owner pulled into an electric vehicle charging spot near the entrance of a Whole Foods. Challenged on this, he said, “I don’t see any EVs around here.” I pointed out the obvious—if one did show up, it wouldn’t have anywhere to park. He got unprintable at that point.
Tom Greenwood of the Detroit News recently encountered “two BMW tools,” also in a grocery store parking lot. One, talking on his cellphone, blocked a whole intersection until he was ready to move; another, also on the phone, cut him off in a quest for a parking spot.
The University of California study confirms what people already tend to perceive. A Car Throttle poll found that 41 percent of respondents believe that BMWs “have the highest ratio of jerks behind the wheel.” It’s interesting that five German automakers appear in the poll’s asshat Top 10. The poll was kindest to drivers of Mitsubishis and Mazdas (though it’s interesting that Honda and Toyota are both in the Top Five).
I’m guessing, though, that polls like that one reflect a fair amount of class envy. We want to believe that the guy (it usually is a guy) behind the wheel of that fine, expensive German machinery is, well, an asshole.
I asked Piff about this. "Sure," he said. "I've personally experienced luxury car drivers being rude on the road–-haven't we all? Anecdotes along these lines are a dime a dozen, but they could be subject to all sorts of biases, including illusory correlation, envy, antagonism, and so on. That's one reason why I wanted to run some studies, to see if there was in fact a pattern in the noise." And the results of the study, alas, tend to support the view that there’s some truth in the stereotypes.
By the way, as an equal-opportunity offender, the UC study also found that Prius drivers were frequent scofflaws. That prompted Conan O’Brien to quip, “The worst drivers drive a Prius. Apparently it’s very difficult to drive while patting yourself on the back.”
Oh, and the study also found that males (of course) are less likely to respect pedestrians than women drivers, and that both drivers of both sexes will stop more frequently for a woman on foot than they will for a man.
Here's Bill Morrissey's song on video: