Monday, May 19, 2014

Everything That's Wrong With The World Today: Driving Edition

À cheval, by Jan Verhas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers know: I hate to drive.

Usually I get around by bus, subway, train and the occasional taxi. But once in a while there is an errand or task I have to perform that brings me face to face with the central dilemma of North American life: whether to take once of those drives we've conditioned ourselves to think of as reasonable despite the fact that a moment's inattention could kill you and several strangers, or whether to take an insane multi-stage bus trip ending in a place where people treat "taxis" like a bizarre foreign luxury brand. In these situations, I borrow my friend's car.

And then when I'm driving, I'm always like, WTF? Because really, driving mirrors and perpetuates the very worst qualities of modern life.

1. Driving makes you see other people as just annoying obstacles

The main thing about driving is that other people are simply in your way, doing nothing for you except pissing you off.

In other circumstances the presence of other people is almost always a mix of the bad and good. Sure they might be nattering on and on about how their weight-loss regime is so flexible and easy-going, they actually had a glass of wine a week ago Saturday! (actual thing I heard) but even so, they can be interesting and fun to watch and listen to and really, would you want to sit all by yourself on a completely empty bus? It would be a little creepy.

But in the car, forget it. The existence of other people in other cars is just making your life worse. Who prefers a crowded lane to an empty highway? No one.

2. Driving makes you think you're a rugged individual, taking responsibility for yourself

When you drive, you make literal the whole metaphor of Being In The Driver's Seat. There's something about the combination of the car and the road gives you an almost irresistible feeling that you are In Control. Want to go fast? Push your foot down! Want to slow down? Put your foot down differently! You can DO ANYTHING and you don't need help from anybody -- except, of course, needing them to get out of your way.

I often think of an image I encountered in a book by Jonathan Haidt, where he describes being on the back of a horse or donkey or something, and being in a very dangerous and delicate situation near a cliff -- he is seized with fear that he won't be able to make it safely, then suddenly realizes, he is not DRIVING A CAR, where it does whatever you want, he's ON AN ANIMAL who has the same interest in not falling that he has. It's no problem. The animal steps carefully and they find their way.

3. Driving makes you see other people as utterly expendable

It's shocking that this should be so, but it seems to be. It's bizarre. People who will give up a whole day to run some race or something for cancer research in a tiny contribution to an effort to maybe possibly help someone survive an illness also get merrily in the car without giving a moment's thought to the fact that it is quite easy and even possible that they will kill someone.

I think it's like this: you feel you have to drive, so you do a little one-man's-ponens-is-another-man's-tollens and conclude that the risk must be tolerable -- that is, you adjust your judgments about tolerable risks to fit your judgment that driving is ho-hum-just-another-activity, because not driving is intolerable.

When I mentioned recently to a family member that driving made me anxious because in cases of accidents and inattention it's possible to kill other people, they were like "Dude, you are one weird person."

4. Driving makes you one angry mo-fo

Haven't you noticed this?

5. Driving makes musing feel like thinking

Often on a long drive you feel like you're "thinking about things," because on a long drive many thoughts go through your mind. But it's in the nature of driving that you can't really follow any of those thoughts through. They come by, and you see them, and you feel "Oh, a thought!" and then the car in front of you slows down or there's something strange by the side of the road and you're distracted until two minutes later when another thought comes by and you feel again "Oh, a thought!"

The result is that while you feel like you're thinking because you're having "thoughts," you're not really engaging in anything like the sustained active reflection characteristic of actual thinking -- and, I might add, actually facilitated by a long bus or train trip where all you're doing is staring out the window.

When you drive, you're just musing about things, seeing the thoughts go by. Drive enough, and you find yourself in the condition so characteristic of the modern era: unable to actually put thoughts together and, you know, think about them. 

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