The Menace of Cars
Does getting behind the wheel change our psychology?
There’s something menacing about cars.
Look, I love my car, and I love driving—when I choose to, not when I’m forced to—and yet it’s a simple fact that somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people violently die on American roads every year.
Most of those killed are motorists or passengers. But increasingly they are pedestrians and bicyclists. Occasionally, they are even occupants of buildings struck by wayward cars. (Though, of course, cars don’t kill people, unless they’re self-driving; drivers do. As my dad taught me, “accident” is often an excuse.)
Simply to drive in America—which is more or less to say, simply being an American—is to understand and accept that there is a non-negligible chance that you will kill with, or be killed by, a car.
This reminds me of something the British conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple wrote, about Soviet-era propaganda. He argued that the point of such propaganda was not really to convince people that it was true. Rather, it was to force them to accept obvious lies, and thereby become in some way complicit in those lies. By flooding society with obvious falsehoods or exaggerations, the elites could chip away at the probity of the people they ruled. Cultivating a sort of spirit of dishonesty, of complacency, was the point.
I do not know if that is true, but it strikes me as relevant here in this way.
The ubiquity of the car, and the level of violence and death that comes with it, is something you cannot completely extricate yourself from unless you completely refuse to drive. By driving you are almost assenting, maybe only on a subconscious level, to the amount of carnage which is associated, obliquely, with your decision.
What does it do to your character, and to your mind, to accept the fact that there is a good chance you will kill another human being simply in the course of running your errands? Once you accept that a toll of 30,000 to 40,000 people is normal and acceptable, what else are you accepting or allowing yourself to accept? Does it erode our moral integrity to assent to that? To feel, and to know, that in some way our freedom of movement demands a death toll?
Believe me, I don’t want to think about this when I hop in the car to go buy my groceries. Most people, I think, are pretty afraid of accidentally killing someone while driving, not least because they fear punishment. But serious punishment is infrequent. It’s almost a truism among traffic safety advocates that if you want to kill someone, you run them over and tell the cops you didn’t see them.
It’s been a fixture of social commentary for decades, really centuries, that America is a country with an outsized level of violence, especially given its high level of economic development. You see this with duels, in the 1800s. Hatfields and McCoys. Mass shootings. Road rage.
Now, all of these problems exist to some degree everywhere. Road rage occurs everywhere that people in cars become angry, and America’s violent streak long predates our pattern of car dependency. But it is hard not to see the car as reflective of our national character, or, at least, as aggravating it.
In other words, sure, the car is freedom, but the car is also violence. In America, freedom and violence are intertwined in a Gordian knot. That hard-edged individualism is, for better or worse, American.
Think about how worked up people get about cars. The notion that if you want cars to be safer for those outside of them, you want more motorists to die. The warnings to lock your doors, because the violent criminals will drag you out of your car and beat you up. The rage a motorist who has almost just killed a cyclist will fly into if the cyclist so much as taps on the car to note displeasure.
Sometimes these people, frankly, sound like white South Africans towards the end of apartheid: a ruling class convinced it is a persecuted minority. (The white South Africans actually were a minority, so they were half right.)
It’s easy to knock those folks. But I increasingly wonder if there’s something about driving itself which creates this state of mind. If simply being in an enclosed vehicle with doors and locks creates the fear that those doors will be forced open. If the very safety and security of the suburbs-and-cars life actually induces a sort of paranoia. Maybe how you handle having things to lose is a test of your character.
One of the things I think about, looking forward to owning a house one day, is whether I will become one of those people who wonders why anybody is out walking. “What are they up to?” “Should we call the police?” I can laugh at that now, but I wonder how much I will have to resist those attitudes which the suburban lifestyle seems in some way to trigger.
And again, it’s easy to knock these folks, but when it comes to traffic deaths, I mostly feel bad for anyone involved. An accident may be an excuse, but it’s also not murder. There we are again: by participating in American life, we assent to these seemingly unavoidable deaths. Sometimes we even defend them. Our whole traffic engineering system places the convenience of drivers at the top of the list.
Charles Marohn writes about this at length in his most recent book (well, it’s pretty much what the book is about.) But one theme I still think about a lot after reading it over a year ago is this one: on American roads, we have made the costs of ordinary human mistakes far too high.
For those who die, of course. But also for those who kill.
His book is dedicated to a little girl struck and killed on a busy “street” (i.e. effectively a highway) in Springfield, Massachusetts. But he also mourns that the person who struck her, who perhaps just turned to the radio dial for a moment, has to live with that for the rest of her life. It is insane that we have engineered a world in which glancing at the radio dial can lead to the violent death of a child.
Marohn emphasizes that while many traffic crashes do come down to mistakes, we are running deadly experiments on our roads every day, and we can predict how often these mistakes will occur, and how many deaths they will result in. They are baked into the traffic engineering cake.
I do not hate the car. I do not want to “ban cars.” What I would like to see—if it is possible, and I hope it is—is the decoupling of the car from violence and death.
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