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It's official: The fancier the car, the more likely the driver's a jerk

Studies show that people who drive fancy cars cut off other motorists and fail to yield to pedestrians more often that drivers of lesser vehicles.

It turns out the rich really are different from you and me. They drive like entitled jerks.

They're middle-finger-pointing, ride-up-your-trunk-bullying, outta-my-way motorists.

That's the authoritative word from researchers who keep track of this sort of thing.

Three studies over the last five years show that people driving expensive cars were more likely to cut off other motorists and less likely to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.

"This suggests that wealthier drivers may reflect adherence to ethical codes geared towards maximizing one's self-interest, often at the expense of others," says psychologist Jeremy Boyd, formerly of the Human Development Program at the University of California, San Diego.

In other words, says Paul Piff, a University of California, Irvine, professor of psychology and social behavior who conducted a motoring study of his own, "money makes you more likely to exhibit the characteristics of being a jerk."

Similar results were reported two years ago by psychologist Beth Morling from the University of Delaware, who discovered that drivers of more expensive cars were slightly less likely to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

In the San Diego study, observers studied nearly 800 drivers at around 50 intersections across Southern California. Piff and his people looked at around 500 cars, also on California roads.

Trying to explain the phenomenon, Piff mentioned an ongoing study of 50,000 adults across the United States created to learn how wealth relates to social behavior beyond the highways.

Wealthy people, Piff says, are less willing to take up the perspective of another person and less concerned about another's well-being, and they tend to equate being better off with being better than others. Money makes people feel more deserving of success, he adds, and less needful of others.

Cash can corrupt, Piff suggests, especially when large-walleted people slide onto leather seats and get a hit of that new-car smell enhanced by a $50,000 sticker price.

Around here, the message sent by monied motorists, that anyone driving a beater ought to kiss their rear bumper, isn't exactly news.

"I didn't need a study to know that better-off drivers are bigger jerks on the road," says Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.

That's how Susan Magee, a Volkswagen Jetta owner, sees it, too.

"Absolutely. People who drive BMWs are, I'm sorry, they really have a problem," said Magee, 49, a Plymouth Township college instructor. She won't name the college because, she said, "Lucky me, my dean has a BMW."

Recently she learned that a friend was a BMW owner when he gave her a lift from a Phillies game. "He was driving like a maniac," she said. "He was terrible, and that sealed it for me. I may have to rethink the friendship."

People in expensive cars tend to ride your bumper and move aggressively on the road, Magee says, adding, "Maybe they can afford to get the fender bender. But Allstate will forgive me only so many times."

A spokesman for BMW of North America did not respond to a request to defend his customers.

Sexy sedan owners are not the only objects of ire on the turnpikes. It seems that operators of large, sumptuous machines make a bad impression out there as well.

"You can see a sense of entitlement with big cars," says Michael Chitwood, superintendent of the Upper Darby Police Department. "They're saying, 'I got a big Lincoln or SUV, and you better get out of my way. I got things to do, and I'm in a hurry.'"

For Mary Washington, a Cheltenham Township crossing guard, one lumbering behemoth became her personal white whale.

"The big black Dodge truck," says Washington, who won't give her age but says she has crossed children outside Myers Elementary School for 40 years. Her grandmotherly voice fairly growls as she describes the vexing vehicle. "Tinted glass, stopping in the driving lane at school. Just stopping. Tying up traffic. Oh!"

The unfairness, the gall, was all too much. So Washington dimed out the driver to the cops.

"Now," she says, a slight giggle burbling in her voice, "he doesn't stop in that lane anymore."

Not everyone complains about expensive cars, of course.

"I generally don't look at the type of car out there," says Randy LoBasso, communications manager for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. He's got enough to worry about as he rolls a thin line through heavy traffic.

That doesn't mean he's without complaint, however.

"Drivers on phones worry me," he says. "And also people from New Jersey. They don't give me enough room."

Ultimately, it may be simplistic to correlate a fine ride with a bad attitude, says John Maxwell, a former chief inspector with the Philadelphia Police Department who spent a few years working accident investigations.

"I never saw entitlement play a part in fatal or serious accidents," he says. "And I hate generalizing that fancy-car drivers make up the rules as they go."

That all may be true, says Susan Magee, the Jetta-driving college instructor.

But if she hits the lottery or something and can someday afford a luxury car, she says, she won't buy it. Why?

"I wouldn't want people to dislike me."