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Automobile Traffic and the Driver’s Consciousness in America

(remember this post? No? I didn’t think so.)

A Prologue

Try this. Get yourself on a freeway. Something in a not-too-overcrowded section of town but still with a substantial amount of traffic. Get in the fast or the next-to-fast lane. Set your cruise control to six miles above the speed limit (the average according to studies on urban driving). See how far you can get without having to brake for a car. It shouldn’t be too far. While in cruise control, look around you, see how many cars carry a steady speed, see how many stay in a lane appropriate to their speed in relation to others. See how depressed/annoyed this makes you.

Why are Americans such bad drivers? Is it the cell phones, the constant made-easy-by-fast-food food consumption, the kids, the loud music, the too-powerful-for-our-own-good cars, the upsurge in immigration giving us indigenous a bad name?

Or is it that we are herd animals, incapable of judging things for ourselves independent of others. I have been in cars where drivers vary their speed by as much as twenty miles an hour in a single stretch of highway, never noticing the fluctuation, much less the reason it has occurred. Interstate driving on open stretches of road is a good place to feel bad about humanity: witness the cars around you speed up faster and faster into the open lane in front of them, seemingly desperate to catch up to a line of slower traffic, all for the purpose of…? Being close to one another? Euphoric camaraderie? See how the car behind you will speed up until right on your tail and, seemingly content with this position, stay there until you move over–then, panicking, no longer a leader in front of him, quickly cut you off and slow down to speeds far lower than just a few seconds ago, causing you to hit the breaks or move back into the lane you’ve just been forced out of.

The psychology of placing oneself within a group so as to lessen the pressure of personal responsibility is evident all over our highways. The fact that this conversely endangers the group is lost on the driver. As long as one is going with the flow, these drivers feel, the flow cannot hurt one and one is not responsible if it does or if it hurts others. Lack of responsibility is perhaps the most dangerous attitude held by American drivers today. Propelling a 4,000 pound object through crowded areas of people and/or other 4,000 pound objects is not an act to be taken lightly. It is shocking how little attention is paid by the majority of drivers to the destructive power of one’s own vehicle while one is operating it. It kills far more people annually than any other civilian activity.

And yet we persist in considering it a right, a right of passage, handing out licenses with little effort or trouble, attaching to them little sense of responsibility. At 15 and 16 the rules of the road are learned desultorily, by rote, as one would study fractions, and the actual road test is an easy twenty minutes nearly every kid can pass. After that, nothing.

To die in a car crash has become the most banal way to die. As a statistic, it is the basest, the most common, like being buried in a mass grave, or a potter’s field. Vehicular manslaughter is oftentimes seen as a remorseless offense. And why not? Without instilling an appropriate level of driver accountability, who is to blame when (aptly named) accidents happen to kill people?

As a driver, you are nearly 3 times more likely to be killed by a car–your own or someone else’s–than a gun*. As a pedestrian, you account for around 12% of those fatalities. Most of these deaths occur within residential areas or urban centers, and are perpetrated by civilians not involved in any way with automobile commerce, i.e. those driving for pleasure or running personal errands or getting food or drink. This is crazy.

*these numbers do not include guns turned on oneself; nor do they similarly include suicide using vehicles; shockingly, two-thirds of gun deaths nationally are suicides


[…the rest of this not-at-all-ranty essay will be about more boring things like the ways in which freeway driving has killed our culture, the death of neighborhoods along freeway corridors and abuse of eminent domain, the anxieties engendered by daily traffic-laden commuting, the effect of traffic stress on the health of our society, the effect of traffic on our society’s loss of individualism, the soullessness of Interstate (capital “I”) driving, the woeful discomfort of driver’s seats, the low-on-the-totem-pole position of traffic cops, the absence of God on the highway, the meaning of what it means to move over the earth at 100 mph, the meaning of the word “asshole” used in an inter-vehicle context, the meaning of those road signs the yellow ones with the squiggly line and a stripe down the side, and more…]

deer vs man

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