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The High and Mighty

A road runt decides to join the enemy camp-renting a very big Chevy Suburban for a day-and comes away with slightly different view.

March 14, 1997|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I joined the enemy for one day. Actually, I climbed into an enemy vehicle and drove around this megalopolis with my seat 38 inches above the ground. My goal was to see life and freeway traffic from the vantage point of all you high-rise, jumbo-width drivers who darken my usual time behind the wheel.

You know who you are, all you smug owners of Jeep Cherokees, Chevrolet Suburbans, Ford Aerostars. Your vans, trucks and ludicrously named sports utility vehicles tower over my low-to-the-ground compact and make it difficult, sometimes impossible, to see. After all, my seat is usually a mere 21 inches above the blacktop. That positions my driving eyeglasses at about the level of your bellybutton.

I'm sure you don't think much of it, as your blimp blocks my vision of road conditions, stop signs and traffic lights.

You couldn't care less that your parked vans transform my left turns into blind sprints. Why should you worry when four of you pin me into claustrophobia at 65 mph on the Golden State Freeway.

Before I rant further, allow me to reveal my cards.

I am, I confess, enough of a cheapskate that I have kept my two-door, unair-conditioned 1984 Toyota Corolla for all these years. Besides having no anxieties about theft and dents, I enjoy the lack of car payments and the reduced insurance.

I also am a breeder. I have experienced my share of broken Barbie pieces in the back seat of the aforementioned Corolla and the joys of having the Barbie's rightful owner explode a cran-apple juice box on the upholstery. So I understand the need for some kiddie room.

But what about a nice station wagon, instead of turning all those lovely Los Feliz moms into potential Teamsters? How many of you Jeep-owning accountants will be plowing through the sand dunes of Baja after tax season? Talk about fantasy marketing, Mr. Poseur.

Surely, I thought, this mania for high seating must increase accidents.

A CHP official said he knew of no resulting boom in fender benders. He also suggested that I could avoid problems if I only drove a safe distance behind those vans. To his credit, he conceded that such a strategy would allow another van to slip in front of me.

I found a more sympathetic expert at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Again no statistics, yet he agreed about the danger potential. "I think you are on to an area that is an issue," he said. Thank you, I said.

That was when the city editor--another angry low rider--suggested I join the enemy. So I rented a very white, very big Chevrolet Suburban. It had room for eight adults, excellent AC, major side-view mirrors. Just climbing into it required a bit of a stretch.

At first, I was paranoid about smashing the Suburban's roof on the garage's ceiling. The first lane change was odd. The little Mazda ahead of me seemed so fragile and low compared to my big boat. Don't hate me, I thought. Just this morning, I was a groundling too.

Soon, surprisingly, I settled down and found it easy to drive. After all, the sight lines were excellent.

To the south near Imperial Highway, I could actually see over the central divider on the Harbor Freeway. To the north in Pasadena, I could spot water running in the Arroyo Seco behind those high fences. The San Gabriel Mountains seemed closer and I certainly felt safer near the summit.

But other vistas appeared. I could study truck drivers' harried expressions, eye to eye. I could swap glances with unhappy bus passengers. The minor charge of spying on women in short skirts was spoiled by the paper debris of what I imagined to be soured business deals on their front seats. I watched rumpled men behind the wheel, their soiled wardrobe piled on the back seat.

I returned to my garage, cautiously mooring in a space reserved for "oversized vehicles only." The ride had not converted me, but I could understand the enemy better. I learned what I miss, good and bad. I am more certain that high-riders have no excuse for their roadway rudeness.

Oh yeah, I did have one close call at a freeway ramp. This time the enemy was a fool driving a BMW sedan and talking, of course, on his cell phone. Don't get me started.

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