Column: Car talk

If there ever was a constant in my life (besides Desmond Hume), it would be the following: I always get the middle seat. Now, I’m not complaining here. While the middle seat in your average four-door sedan isn’t necessarily the most comfortable, it makes sense for shorties and happens to be the safest. I know I’d feel guilty if I was sitting comfortably by the window counting raindrops while one of my taller co-passengers was counting their breaths in the constricting middle “seat.” Cars make me wonder.

Thanks to a now British neighbor and a younger brother, I’ve become mildly obsessed with the show “Top Gear.” Hosted by three outrageously funny Brits, the program showcases cars, makes fun of cars and has famous people drive reasonably priced cars. If you asked me two years ago to sit down for an hour and watch people analyze engines and carburetors, my immediate response would be: “aaaabsolutely not.” But “Top Gear” has enlightened me. I still have no idea how a car works, but I can name drop like no other. “Did you see that Aston on 11th Street? Someone knew the Veyron wasn’t worth it.”

The hosts make the show for me. There’s the 6-foot-5 ringleader, Jeremy Clarkson, the awkward 5-foot-11 James May and the 5-foot-6 little engine that could, Richard Hammond. For some unidentifiable reason, watching these guys banter for an hour makes my day.

A lot of the humor on the show stems from height. Watching Clarkson try to squeeze into a Honda Fit is, admittedly, rather hilarious. Not to mention Hammond’s struggles with reaching the clutch in almost every sports car. Thinking about these humor-filled scenes led to the following ah-ha moment: for some, the front seat is the middle seat.

As someone who honestly detests driving and sees cars as one of the scariest weapons we’ve come to rely on, I believe that safety on the road should always be a priority. But I’ve come to see that a person’s height in relation to their car of choice is significant, for it can be a determinant of how they drive.

Take the following episode of “Top Gear.” The chaps were given the challenge to design an eco-friendly car, which they decided to call “Geoff.” As they tested and researched electric cars and hybrids, they continuously found that all the cars were rather small. This proved problematic for Clarkson, who could never physically operate the cars. Or get in them.

So in their design of Geoff, the team extended a small section of the car’s roof in order to accommodate Clarkson. Watching Clarkson berate “eco-mentalists” while positioned in a window above an electric car is absolute gold.

It’s clear that there’s an interest in green technology among car companies. But what if 6-foot-7 Severus wants to be environmentally friendly? Does he have to buy a hybrid Escalade? That doesn’t seem particularly fair. I know I severely judge the countless people in my neighborhood back home who drive obnoxious SUVs. But now I’ve began to wonder if that’s the only car they fit comfortably and safely in. How would I know?

Or take the minivan. For some families it becomes a necessity. I know those magical trips to Anaheim wouldn’t have happened for my family of six if we didn’t’ have that Toyota Previa (another constant). But the van also poses a problem. No matter how far I pull the seat up, I still don’t feel entirely comfortable driving it. It’s like riding a Thestral you can’t see.

My fears were affirmed when my roommate shared a story about how her 4-foot-11 mother got in a car accident because she couldn’t see what was behind her minivan from the driver’s seat. This tells me that we definitely have a problem. Some people need certain cars, but said cars aren’t built for them.

To seek further opinions I went to my childhood and current source of reason, NPR. Their weekly show “Car Talk” spotlights people and their vehicle issues. A quick perusal of the show’s archives and forums revealed that this height issue comes up quite often. Cars are a major investment, and they matter to people. All you have to do is watch my brother, Raj, gawk over ads with mystical-looking cars and hipsteresque music to know that most people place value in these machines.

Which is exactly why everyone deserves to find a car that is safe, accommodates their size and looks really cool. I believe that safe driving will become more prevalent if we start taking height into consideration (new pledge, Oprah?). Sure there will always be those drivers who make poor choices on the road, but at least people won’t be worried about reaching the pedals.

Know how to get a flying car out of the Whomping Willow? Send an owl to MAYA MAKKER at mgmakker@ucdavis.edu

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