What Is Up With American Trucks?

During my modest career, I have written three of stories you might say have “gone (modestly) viral”:

  1. A story about a kind of taco sauce unique to San Jose, California
  2. This blog about why I think it’s a mistake to call the United States a “western country”
  3. And this (typo-riddled) satirical take on the utter terror I experienced while re-learning to drive in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Several hundred thousand people have read those articles by now, which is a pleasant thought for a writer — but letting your opinions loose on the internet (whether it’s on American history or taco sauce) is bound to get blowback. For my part, no article received a more vicious response than my story about driving in the Bay Area. 

People took offense to several lines in the article, including my ruthless (and entirely justified) attack on the “clueless” drivers of Burlingame, my objection to the practice of cutting across multiple freeway lanes unannounced at high speed (a rich cultural tradition in the Bay Area) and my tongue-in-cheek request for drivers to be careful with this small-town Australian clinging to the steering wheel of his girlfriend’s Prius. But nothing stirred up the hornet’s nest more than my reference to “the 20-foot jacked-up trucks that function only to compensate for the owner’s undoubtedly sad, shriveled manhood.” 

I received some hard core internet vitriol for this. Threats in the comments, entire threads devoted to wishing me ill. In America, you don’t mess with truck owners or their trucks. 

For many new arrivals, the first thing they notice about America (aside from the good-natured cattle herders in TSA) is the sheer size of the vehicles on the road, especially the pick-up trucks. The front grilles are billboard-sized vertical cliffs of what auto blog Jalopnik calls “baroque and confrontational” design. They bear down on other drivers like angry bears, growl at us at intersections and, with headlights five feet from the ground, blind us when they don’t even have the high-beams on. 

Speaking of high-beams, I’d wager that a sizeable minority of American truck owners have never even used them. The trucks are so expensive and so impractical — much of their length is taken up with a family-sized cab and a hood the size of a tennis court, and the tray is too far off the ground to be useful — that workers who might actually use the vehicle as a tool stay well clear. Pay attention, and you’ll notice that the only trucks with tools in the tray are the smallest models. These little workhorses actually work. The big ones are just for show.

This ballooning in truck size is a pretty recent phenomenon. Here, we have a 1990’s-era work truck — the kind you still see actual tradesmen driving around — next to a modern behemoth, a child’s drawing rendered in grotesque 3D reality: 

Via Twitter

That thing is enormous! Here’s another example:

Also via Twitter

Try to remember that the Lexus is a full-sized SUV, completely capable of offroading, similar to a Toyota Prado in Australia. But it looks like a toy next to the Chevy Silverado, whose hood is as high as the Lexus’ roof

A truck this size is entirely impractical for real work, depreciates like hell, costs a fortune to buy and run and, speaking as someone who once drove someone’s old work ute around Australia, is complete overkill for off-road recreation. So what are they good for? 

There’s only one answer: they look kind of bad arse. To a certain subset of American men (and the market is overwhelmingly made up of men), a truck like this signifies a kind of juvenile masculinity: muscular, aggressive, luxurious, mean. It reminds me of a peacock’s feathers. Sure they’re pretty, but generations of male competition for mates has spiralled into an evolutionary dead end. They’re unnecessary and, frankly, a bit embarrassing. 

They’re also dangerous. (The trucks, not the tail feathers.) One potent example comes from a report by an Indiana news crew, which measured the blind spots created by the kind of huge grilles and expansive hoods found on some of the country’s most popular truck and SUV models. The massive front on the Cadillac Escalade, a living room on wheels, creates a blind spot large enough that 13 children seated in a line in front of the vehicle were invisible to the driver. The Dodge Ram 1500 and Ford F150 trucks weren’t far behind. 

Grillz that killz. Via Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the increasing size of both trucks and SUVs here are contributing to an increase in pedestrian deaths. Despite newfangled cameras, sensors and automatic braking, pedestrian deaths rose by a whopping 46 percent in the U.S. between 2009 and 2018. The explanation is pretty simple: when a sedan or another lower-profile vehicle hits a pedestrian, the grille only takes out their legs. The unfortunate victim will then roll up the hood and over the roof. But a large truck or SUV will simply slam straight into a pedestrian’s head or torso, causing far greater damage. What’s more, an investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that federal regulators have been tracking the trend and its causes for years, but have failed to act. 

At the same time, the increased preference for SUVs and large trucks is cancelling out recent gains in fuel efficiency and associated reductions in climate emissions, according to a report by the International Energy Agency

Now, most of you know that I’m usually a pretty chill guy and are wondering why I hold the drivers of these vehicles in such contempt. It’s partly because more than a few of them have almost sent me on an early trip to meet my maker. Once, I was delivering sandwiches for a fast food chain by bicycle when one of these idiots veered into the bike lane and almost minced me. When I had the temerity to flip him the bird, he pulled across the road to block both lanes of traffic. He threatened violence and then, as I approached, tried to hit me with his truck. (Fortunately, thanks to his vehicle’s enormous size, he became stuck in this position. While other motorists yelled at him to get out of the way, I was able to skip nimbly around and continue with my delivery — because the bicycle is humankind’s most perfect invention and superior to the automobile in every way.)

But it’s more than that. There’s a special kind of obnoxiousness that comes with owning such an enormous truck. Just recently, H and I went snowshoeing with some friends in our COVID bubble. The road to the trailhead was narrow, with a line of cars parked up against the snowbank on one side. The traffic was heavy and slow-moving until a pair of gigantic Dodge trucks simply mounted the bank and ploughed through. They left the road covered in piles of chunky snow, rendering a ploughed asphalt road impassable for any sensibly-sized vehicle. Literally hundreds of vehicles became stuck for at least half an hour as we all worked together to re-clear the road. 

Despite their inefficiencies, impracticality and the dangers they pose to other road users, consumer demand creates incentives for carmakers to keep pumping out these monstrosities. Ultimately, I think this cultural obsession with trucks reveals a severe deficiency in our modern understanding of masculinity. For many men — myself included — the rites of passage that transitioned us out of boyhood involved little more than getting black-out drunk in a paddock, doing doughnuts in our mum’s Honda Civic and telling our embarrassed dads that yes, we already know how “it all works down there.” That deficiency reveals itself in different ways in different cultures, but in the U.S. it’s easy to spot those who were never able to move beyond that improvised, adolescent attempt to imitate manhood. They’re blasting down the highway on enormous off-road tyres, blowing weather-altering clouds of exhaust and hunting down that bicycle-loving, Prius-driving pansy who dared insult their truck. 

I recently published a book about a year-long bicycle trip from Canada to El Salvador! You can order “The Guest: A Backroads Journey by Bicycle” here.

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