By Burt Constable
The shiny grille of the tailgating luxury SUV fills the entire rearview mirror of my Prius as I drive the speed limit through a school zone on this first day of school. I admit to a bit of giddy pleasure as I voluntarily stop at the crosswalk and allow a gaggle of ambling parents to escort their children across the busy street.
The frustrated driver behind me spends the time as if he's a NASCAR driver plotting his restart strategy after a crash delay. The last child's sneaker reaching the sidewalk is the same as a green flag. The tailgater whips into the right-turn-only lane, zips by me and cuts in front before the street narrows back to a single lane.
Content in knowing that his stunt probably burned 30 cents of gas while I'm still running on battery power on my way to recording 61 mpg on my commute to work, I feel nothing but pity for him -- until the end of the block, when he applies his turn signal and brakes simultaneously, making me brake and wait for him to make a left turn in traffic.
What kind of person is this rude?
Rich folks for starters, according to a sociology study that is enjoying a rebirth on social media sites this month. In addition to being more likely to pocket financial errors in their favor, cheat to win prizes and help themselves to candy meant for children in another room, rich people are more likely to wrest the right of way from pedestrians, according to a study published in 2012 by social psychologist Paul K. Piff, a researcher at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California Berkeley.
Folks driving luxury cars at a four-way-stop intersection improperly cut off pedestrians at a rate more than four times higher than people who drove the least expensive cars, with BMW drivers being the worst, found Piff, who exchanges very courteous emails with me explaining he is out of town and unavailable for interviews.
But here's the shocker: One group of drivers in much cheaper cars proved just as rude -- drivers of the hybrid Prius, the same car that I drive.
If I'm so rude, how come I'm not rich?
"Maybe, according to them, we're the exceptions," suggests Larry Rosenbaum, the BMW sales manager for Motor Werks of Barrington, who couldn't be nicer when I call him out of the blue Monday to ask if BMW drivers are jerks.
"I don't find BMW drivers or any other luxury drivers any better or worse," says Rosenbaum, who has been dealing in BMWs for 17 years and drives a BMW. "Everybody is too rude and uptight these days, but I don't think it has anything to do with the car you are driving."
Respondents in a survey last week in the United Kingdom declared that the most aggressive drivers are men between the ages of 35 and 50 who drive blue BMWs. Older drivers of drab gray Priuses didn't crack that list.
As a reformed tailgater who hasn't gotten a speeding ticket since the George H.W. Bush administration, I always figured others perceived my Prius as the Dalai Lama of vehicles -- a peaceful soul just moving through the planet on a mission of inspiring others to be better. This could be why some people mockingly refer to Prius owners as "pious" drivers, or why South Park dedicated an entire episode to a "smug alert" caused by hybrid drivers. An online search for "rude Prius driver" or even "Prius driver/any swear word" reveals plenty of unflattering stories, some with accompanying videos unsuitable for family newspaper websites.
The Prius owners who come into Schaumburg Toyota are never rude, says Joe Shoemaker, the general sales manager for the dealership.
"They really are the nicest, most Earth-conscious people," he says. Shoemaker says the study's depiction of Prius drivers as aggressive jerks seems to fly in the face of another Prius stereotype, which tells of meek Prius drivers who slowly coast to stoplights, gently accelerate and might drive a tad too slow for more aggressive drivers.
"They almost get that same reputation as a minivan," says Shoemaker, chuckling at those 25-year-old stereotypes of minivan drivers.
I've owned a minivan since 1995, and don't think I fit that poky stereotype. I've driven my Prius since 2007, and I don't think I rudely fail to yield to pedestrians or other vehicles. But if you really want to see me never drive too slowly and never be a jerk, just put me behind the wheel of a 2014 Imperial Blue Metallic-colored BMW ActiveHybrid 7. I'd be too nervous to drive that expensive luxury car out of my garage.