4x4s and the mud myth

Urban 4x4s are the cars it’s OK to hate. We know that they’re more dangerous than other vehicles and that they lull drivers into a false sense of security. We also know that fuel-inefficient vehicles contribute to climate change and reduce ground-level air quality by creating unnecessary emissions.

I completely agree that your average 4×4 driver has no concern for the safety of others or the long-term safety of the planet we all have to live on. But this isn’t a rant about 4x4s, Chelsea tractors, SUVs, jeeps, whatever you care to call them. It’s a rant about the mud myth.

I’ve heard it voiced over and over again: “You can tell if someone’s a real 4×4 driver from how muddy their car is. If it’s sparkling clean, they’re just a poser.” Mud gives a driver credibility by implying that although today they’re driving through town, normally they’re battling tough off-road conditions. Even green groups seem to swallow this: Green Voice takes pains to single out “spotlessly shiny” vehicles, while a few years ago Friends of the Earth Birmingham offered “mudwashes” to drivers of urban 4x4s: “a lick of crud to cover their lack of cred”.

The narrative seems to be that the minority of SUV owners who use their vehicles for off-roading are justified in their actions, while the majority who use them for the school run should be vilified for their choices. Mud, in this narrative, demonstrates purity of purpose.

I really can’t grasp the logic. It’s like saying, “See the mud on these shoes? That’s because I wear them on my feet almost every week. So you’re not allowed to laugh at me when you see me wearing them on my hands.”

If you see a 4×4 in the middle of a city, it is by definition an urban 4×4. It doesn’t matter what the driver normally does with it; when you see it in town it is because the driver has chosen to drive a lumberingly inappropriate vehicle into town. They have chosen to enter a space shared by motorists, cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians while woefully inequipped to negotiate that sharing; the high-up seats of a 4×4, while greatly appealing to the lizard brain, make it much harder to see road users below a certain height: cyclists, children, wheelchair users, etc.

There’s also the issue that 4x4s aren’t exactly a socially responsible choice even when used for their intended purpose of driving off-road. Leaving aside the issue of carbon emissions and their effect on the global environment, 4x4s are usually bad news for whatever immediate environment they’re driven in, whether that’s Botswana salt flats or Dubai sand dunes. And it’s not as if keeping 4x4s out of the town centre will magically make us all safer: according to the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), the majority of road deaths in the UK happen on rural roads.

Could it be that our bad record for rural road accidents is linked to the mud myth? In mocking Chelsea tractors for their cleanliness and trying to force them out of cities, urban activists are buying into the myth that 4x4s belong elsewhere. That makes it tempting for 4×4 drivers to see the countryside as “their” space, a place to forget about city things like speed cameras and vulnerable road users. Which then feeds into a general myth about the countryside being a place for all drivers to let their guard slip.

That might not be disastrous in itself if it didn’t collide head-on with the myth that the countryside is a safer, healthier place for children than the city. In fact, according to the full IAM report,  children account for over a third of the pedestrian and a quarter of the pedal cyclist casualties with fatal or serious injuries in rural areas.

Explore posts in the same categories: cultural narratives

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