I’ve noticed a curious transformation recently. I’m afraid of cars. But really, shouldn’t everyone be?
I’ve always been pretty minimal on car usage, and even since I first learned to drive I’ve dreamt of giving up cars. But since I moved here, and especially in the year and a half since I got my current regular job 3½ miles away from home, cars have almost completely stopped being a part of my day-to-day life. Aside from a current one-day-a-week landscaping side gig that Misty got me into, I ride in a car maybe once every week or two, and it’s been that way for a long time.
A few months ago I zoned out while a housemate was driving some of us down the interstate. In a mental soft focus, I noticed headlights and other lights whipping around us on all sides; g-forces shuffling us from side to side and front to back; huge metal forms only a few feet away from us in any direction I looked. And I found enough lucidity to muse out loud: “Isn’t it weird how we treat it as completely normal to do something as dangerous as driving on the interstate?” Everyone in the car agreed—though that may have had more to do with that particular driver than it did with the inherent danger of driving itself. Since that night I’ve noticed more and more that when I’m in a car, especially on the Twin Cities’ twisty-turny interstates with their tight lane spacing and frequent construction surprises, I find myself a little white-knuckled and tense. I’m not constantly on the verge of a panic attack (panic attacks aren’t a thing that happens to me), but when the car stops and I get out, I always notice that the world seems safer, I can breathe deeper, and my vision is less tunneled.
I could probably desensitize myself to all that, but I’m actually not interested. I think a fear of cars is healthy. In fact, I still believe what I said that night on the highway: it really is bizarre that so many people, many of them every single day, willingly drive cars and don’t think they’re doing anything particularly hazardous.
Let’s be clear about the danger involved. Outside of driving, what are the most dangerous things most of us do? For a lot of us, there’s actually nothing even remotely in the same league. But there are people who use heavy machinery, or who do construction work in high places, or who go thrillseeking on their mountain bikes. Picture a dangerous situation: we’re hiking out in the mountains and there are some steep drop-offs beside this trail. There is, right here, a clear and present danger of actual death, if you misstep and slide down the rocks into the chasm below. But fortunately for us, the danger only lasts for as long as it takes to walk a few dozen yards, and then the trail veers back onto safer territory (if it’s anything like the wilderness trails I’m used to, anyhow). Also, notice what your mental reaction was. You thought, consciously or not, “This is dangerous—I’d better be especially careful right here.” You focused carefully on your footing for each step.
When you’re driving, there is every bit as much danger of death or dismemberment; one of the biggest differences is that the danger never ends. If you’re going down the highway at 70 mph, you have to be paying absolute attention at virtually every moment. A lapse in attention of even a single second can cause you to not notice the car in front of you that suddenly changes lanes, the piece of debris that’s just appeared in front of you, or any of a thousand other unpredictabilities. And because of your incredible amount of momentum, odds are very good that the price of that second of attention will be something like: your ability to walk, the possibility of living without shooting back pain, or your life itself.
That danger isn’t just rhetorical trickery or exaggeration, either. Every year, in the world, an average of 1.3 million people are killed in car accidents.1 One million three hundred thousand people do not represent a negligible risk or a statistical curiosity. Pol Pot’s regime took five years and a concentrated country-wide eradication program to kill 1.5 million Cambodians, and left a national trauma that’s still known worldwide and won’t heal for generations. The same number of people die every 14 months in car crashes and our only reaction is a sense that such things, while sad, are inevitable and part of the world we live in. And everyone who made it through to the next year keeps on driving.
And somehow, we’re comfortable doing it. While we were hiking along that cliff, your pulse pounded, and you embraced the clarity and focus that a shot of adrenaline gave you. When you’re driving, by contrast, your world feels more or less normal; you may even feel comfortable enough to make some phone calls or trust your ability to predict ten or fifteen seconds of normality while you take off a jacket. It might not even occur to you that, at any moment, you are only one uncontrollable sneezing fit away from a painful exit from this mortal coil.
So while I could start spending more time riding and driving and get myself used to the inherent hazard of it all, my approach to this new fear will be to embrace it, to take it as a valuable signal from my evolutionary lineage that driving is something hazardous and I should act like it. For a mammal such as me, the usual reaction to something life-threatening is to avoid it or, if it’s unavoidable, to approach it on alert. Which means that I’m going to keep avoiding driving. When I have to drive, I’ll use the smaller, slower roads, whenever it’s possible. In California once, I met someone who asked me for thoughts on how it might be possible to get to Missouri without going over 20 mph (besides bicycling, which I believe wasn’t an option for some reason). She’d been trying to live her life with a 20-mph speed limit, and had been rewarded with a sense of grounding and safety. Earlier this year I toyed with the decidedly more modest life step of boycotting highways in the city in favor of surface streets, though I soon found that having other passengers in the car (as I usually did) made me very likely to cave and avoid driving them crazy. Soon I may reassert that idea and tell my housemates (the people I’m most likely to drive around) that, if they’re riding with me, they should expect to take the long way.
Doing this goes against the opposite urge that seems to drive a lot of people when they’re behind the wheel: to go fast fast fast. It seems like that urge should never have developed in the psyche of us soft, blood-filled animals, with our bodies that are hard to repair and impossible to replace. But yet it’s undeniably there and, in a lot of people, plenty powerful enough to override the old survival instinct. Where did it come from? Undoubtedly each person has a different subconscious list of reasons, but I’d like to put one out there that I think may be high up on a lot of those lists.
Several years ago, and I don’t remember quite where, I read someone’s speculations on being in mortal danger. People who describe near-death experiences, he wrote, often talk about a feeling of absolute clarity, and tell that after they were out of danger, some of that clarity remained and seemed to point toward the universal unsolvable question of the meaning of life. It seems, he said, that putting your life at risk is one of the most reliable ways of feeling truly alive. It would explain vision quests, the several-day trips to isolated spots that are traditions in close-to-the-land cultures all over the world. John Fire Lame Deer, the famous Lakota holy man, described sitting for four days in absolute isolation with no food. As life became more tenuous, his perceptions sharpened and something of deeper meaning seemed to find its way in. Those four days and the visions that came from them changed Lame Deer’s entire life and set him on the course to become the holy man he was.
The author I’ve been talking about went on to wonder whether we might be able to experience something like that ourselves, in our world-made-safe: some kind of thing that risk-averse Westerners could do that would feel life-threatening, but with little actual danger of dying. If you found yourself feeling every day as though you were somehow indescribably anesthetized, as though life was somewhat devoid of color in an inexplicable way, you could go do this thing, and clarity would force its way in.
He missed the obvious answer, it seems—though on second glance it turns out it’s not actually all that obvious that it’s the answer. For one thing, if we’re all getting our shot of life endangerment practically every day on our commute, then why hasn’t the intended effect come about, why aren’t we all now shamans or bodhisattvas? If you compare a drive down the highway to a four-day meditation and deprivation in the wilderness, it’s clear that the drive is missing some pieces that would make it as meaningful an experience as the vision quest. For one thing, a sense of deep purpose. Not a lot of people go on a drive with the expectation that they’ll come back having found their totem. Also, you don’t get the ability to surrender completely; you have to be conscious and able to read signs. You or I could come up with a long list of more ways that driving is deficient from a spiritual-questing perspective, but it’s not really necessary, because it’s fairly obvious if you’ve ever driven that it doesn’t feel life-changing, and also because of the results (Exhibit A, the existence of road rage).
But I do think that the analogy does explain the need for speed that drives people to push a hundred down that long desert straightaway. When I was hitchhiking, I got rides a few times from people who weren’t going anywhere; they were just out driving. I also got rides on the German Autobahn, one of them in a car of young people whose driver took us over 120 mph, apparently for the thrill. The main character of Gravity, Dr Ryan Stone, was driving when she got the call where they told her her four-year-old daughter had died, and ever since then, she would just drive all day—and though that’s fiction, it’s fiction that works, because it makes some kind of intuitive sense to us in the audience. Driving, and particularly driving fast, may be the closest some of us get to a spiritual experience, and whether we think we want one or not, it may be what we’re seeking.
With that recognition, I can consciously decide that I’m not interested in using that defective means of feeling a deeper connection to life. I’ll seek out meaning in different ways, thank you very much.
Perhaps I’ve lost you with that last bit, the part that glanced with the spiritual. Let’s boil it down to this: going fast makes some people feel good, whether from the simple adrenaline or from something deeper, but it doesn’t do that for me any more. And I’ve also lost the ability to mute the feeling of danger that comes with it. I’ll still ride in a car with you, but I’ll always be conscious of what we’re really doing. Underneath the normal-sounding word “driving” there lies (no matter how good a driver you are) a complex reality full of speeding metal, fallible components and even more fallible humans, and one of the most unrelenting series of split-second decisions the human mind can handle. We let ourselves forget that. I don’t think we should.