Monday, May 6, 2013

Driving and Death: WTF?

I don't drive a lot and I've never owned a car, partly because I'm concerned about the environment, partly because I've adapted well to the public transit lifestyle, and partly because, let's face it, driving is ridiculous. 

The most ridiculous thing about driving is death.  Motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the US, and we're not so special here.  In 2010 there were 1.24 million deaths worldwide, and in the US there were estimated 5,419,000 crashes, killing 32,885 and injuring 2,239,000.  In 2009 in Canada there were 2,209 deaths 11,451 serious injuries.

Yes, there are some things that kill more people.  But you gotta figure almost all of the driving related deaths were of people who were relatively healthy and not all that old.  From that point of view it's a massive scourge, striking down innocent healthy yogurt-eaters right in their prime. 

And how do we respond?   Massive telethons?  Public Service Announcements saying "Just Stay Home," or "Why Not Walk?"  Billboards with the faces of sad children saying "Do it for me:  take the bus"?

Obviously, no.  Present modern life with facts about traffic-related fatalities and it's like the most massive global collective shrug you've ever seen.  "Uh, yeah...  So where's the Doritos?" 

When future generations write the history of our Age of Affluence, won't their minds boggle that traffic is killing almost 6 times as many people around the world than leukemia, and no one seems to care?  (I got that number by dividing the 1,240,000 mentioned above by the 209,000 mentioned here). 

I found myself reflecting on these facts last weekend because I made an exception to my non-driving lifestyle and took a long drive to visit an ailing relative.  It was one of those situations so common in North America where the distance isn't crazy but the bus is virtually impossible.  I borrowed my friend's car -- which of course prompted great suspicion from the border guards:  "it's your friend's car?  Where's your friend, then?  Huh? Answer me that, smarty!"

So I'm driving along and all I could think was "Wow, driving really brings out the worst in people."

There's this bizarro-world law of the jungle atmosphere on the road, where people are constantly  pushing against the margins of the actual rules, and so you're constantly deciding whether to counter someone's aggression with your own or to acquiesce.  I don't know why it's like that, but it is, and as a result you're forced into this weird junior high style social competition.

Put together the law of the jungle, the insouciance about death, and the peculiar kind of rage you feel when you're a driver among other drivers, and I think you're forced to the conclusion that there's something about driving that makes you feel aggression, rather than caring, toward other people.

It's easy to think of our problems with driving as a symptom rather than a cause of something, but I think the causal arrow goes both ways.  Driving is crazy, but it also makes people crazy.  After all, more driving, more crazy, am I right?  Coincidence?  I don't think so. 

I love public transportation, and as I've gone on about before, one of the things I love about it is the way it encourages and facilitates a feeling of we're-all-in-this-together, a feeling you almost never have while driving, even if technically, we are. 

I was once riding on a Greyhound bus that broke down, and a there was space for a few people on a bus that stopped to help.  People started jumping up to be the ones, and then everyone sort of noticed that there was a quiet shy teenage girl in the back of the bus, with her cap pulled down over her face.  A collective feeling arose that, though she hadn't spoken up, she should be encouraged to take one of these highly desired spots.  And it was all arranged, and she did, and it was all fine.  That's not something that can happen driving.  Driving, you're like "OMFG that person in the car behind me is tailgating and texting. I hate them."

This is where the accidental philosopher, on encountering modern life, thinks: "Really? It's a condition of being a normal responsible helpful person that you are able and willing to pilot several tons of steel in such a way that with a moment's inattention, you could kill someone?


Honestly, how did it come to this?

No comments: