The Blog

Driving the World Insane

Inside our cars, we stop valuing human life and simultaneously overvalue our own time and importance. And because many people who work in the city drive back to the suburbs where they spend all of their money (becoming agents of urban sprawl), cars have become the standard accessory of urban economic divestment.

Because I'm an undocumented sadomasochist, I used to run in LA three times a week. To avoid getting run over by ninja-silent Priuses and also to minimize my exposure to LA's notoriously high levels of particle and ozone pollution, I used to run in the early evening from K-Town all the way to Beverly Hills. After a month, I thought it was just drivers of luxury cars that were complete jerks (especially BMW and Mercedes drivers).

They never stopped for me at pedestrian crosswalks or stop signs. They routinely ignored me on the sidewalk as they zoomed up driveways and raced down parking lot ramps. They went out of turn at four-way stops. They raced through sticky red lights even when Latino families, Korean joggers and dog walkers were already halfway across the street. They did U-turns in the middle of rush hour just because they could. They accelerated through the shoulder of streets and then pulled in front of my wife in her little Rabbit, cutting her off just to be one car ahead of her at the red light. Sometimes, they even honked at me when I wasn't running fast enough across the street.

After I returned to Chicago, though, I realized it's not just LA drivers. Drivers in general have changed for the worse: overconfident and delusional of their own driving skills but also reckless and entitled with other people's time. It's not just that there are too many drivers now, but that rush hour has gotten longer, exacerbating all the problems with urban congestion. And now that smart phones and Onstar are becoming standard weapons for the mercenary class, work has no boundaries anymore.

Americans are always working, even inside their cars, which makes them distracted and impatient. The reality is that driving in America is a tragedy just waiting to happen. Maybe it's time to reconsider the metaphors of American cultural mythology (i.e., cars) because they're ruining our country.

Nothing epitomizes American rugged individualism more poignantly than the automobile. In America, getting your driver's license is a rite of passage, not only giving you the ability to rear-end your neighbor's mail box and go on dates with your dry-mouthed teenage girlfriend, but also entitling you to rights of self-identification. Your license becomes your first piece of government-issued ID that you will use to prove your identity to the world, thereby reinforcing the relationship between driving, mobility and cultural identity.

Part of how America branded itself a nation of car drivers was through the help of Hollywood. From Kitt's sleek black exterior in Night Rider, the iconic Delorean in the Back to the Future series, Crockett's Ferrari Daytona in Miami Vice, the Dukes of Hazard's airborn '69 Dodge Charger singing Dixie to various incarnations of the Batmobile, from Tom Cruise's Big Pimping Porsche 928 in Risky Business, the iconic 1940 Mercury in Rebel without a Cause to the 58' Impala in American Graffiti, cars are deeply embedded in our popular imagination. They have become class signifiers of not just wealth, autonomy, and freedom but also cultural mobility, self-reliance, strength, finesse and (male) power. In other words, cars represent everything that the mythology of the American Dream is founded on, but with a payment plan and better AC.

The problem is that cars have become safe space for our cultural exasperation: part suspended animation, part temporary utopia and part Pope Mobile. Understandably, no one wants to smell urine on the subway or listen to a bunch of rowdy teenagers screaming on the light rail. Most passengers don't know how to deal with bums sleeping on bus benches and unwashed homeless people lugging garbage bags with them like dead Christmas trees.

Even so, mass transit forces us to deal with the rest of society, and by that I mean poor people, students, immigrants, blue and white collar professionals, immigrants, families, tourists, excitable teenagers and old people. It forces us to share space with strangers and temporarily become part of other people's lives, something we'd rather avoid. But maybe that's why it's so important.

Mass transit is not always efficient (or cheap, for that matter), but it is almost always an experience of class intersection. When we drive, we barricade ourselves from and also swerve around reality. Driving becomes a way of editing--and therefore, manipulating--reality. Crime, poverty, class conflict, homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution are all avoidable exits on the highway. With our cars, we see what we wanna see and zoom past the things we don't.

But a nation of drivers becomes a nation of impatient narcissists caught in a web of class performance, social alienation and urban malaise. Forget Japanese or Korean manufacturing quotas or trade tariffs, Americans are their own worst enemies.

If the cultural repercussions of driving weren't bad enough, we also have clear scientific documentation indicating that driving is one of the primary causes of air pollution and lung cancer, emphysema, and asthma, mercury and acid deposition, poisoned wildlife and oh, global warming.

Even worse, driving is actually dangerous for drivers too. Unless you're driving to the gym, your car-first lifestyle continues your sedentary lifestyle, which means that driving will inevitably make you fat (unless you're a teenager with a rabid metabolism). And since heart disease and obesity are the leading causes of death in America and the UK, this isn't exactly chump change we're talking about. Surely it says something when life expectancy calculations change drastically once we tick the "drive frequently" box.

The worst thing about driving is that eventually many drivers become intolerant hypocritical wankers, cut off from the rest of the world, devoid of empathy, patience and inner strength, and incapable of tolerating the things they can't control (known in some circles as reality).

Driving makes us passive aggressive and entitled. We curse one driver for pretending he's in a video game and then we cut off an old guy in the next lane. We pretend not to notice an old woman pushing her shopping cart across the crosswalk. We drive too fast with children playing in the street. We cut off bikers and honk at the car in front of us yielding to pedestrians. We run over deer, possums and pigeons and shrug our shoulders. We cultivate insatiable rage for traffic jams and aggressive drivers even though we're responsible for both. Some drivers are even running over pedestrians and then driving away. According to a January 2013 NPR article, hit and runs occur practically every single day in cities like LA.

Inside our cars, we stop valuing human life and simultaneously overvalue our own time and importance. And because many people who work in the city drive back to the suburbs where they spend all of their money (becoming agents of urban sprawl), cars have become the standard accessory of urban economic divestment.

Of course, mass transit isn't available everywhere and clearly isn't right for everyone or for every circumstance. And there are numerous occasions when driving becomes absolutely necessary. At least temporarily. But where good mass transit is available, driving should be our last choice. Global and urban citizens need to change their default settings and dismantle their practice of cultural exceptionalism. If not for others, then at least for themselves.

Other articles by Jackson Bliss: