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What Driving Means for America

What Driving Means for America

Tuesday, 2 August, 2022 - 04:15
Ross Douthat
Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

The experience of driving across America, which my family just recklessly embraced, is an experience of America but, of course, also an experience of driving. In the last three weeks I’ve spent roughly 55 hours behind the wheel, counting all our detours and side trips, in a rented American minivan (the make and rental company shall remain anonymous) that turned out to have two leaky tires and low oil and a middle seat whose headrest couldn’t be detached to fit our carseat without assistance from several YouTube videos.

That means I am now an official expert on American driving, an essential area of our national life beset, like so many other aspects of the national experience, by disturbance and uncertainty.

Really the uncertainty began with the mid-2000s, when America seemed to hit Peak Driving. The number of miles driven annually by the average American leveled off in George W. Bush’s second term and dropped sharply with the Great Recession. Younger Americans, Millennials and then Zoomers, were acquiring fewer cars and fewer driver’s licenses than prior cohorts. And the emergence of ride-sharing and the promise of self-driving cars seemed to signal a radical change in the American relationship to the automobile.

Or maybe the change wasn’t quite so sweeping as all that, since from 2015 onward the miles-driven figure began to creep back up toward its pre-Great Recession levels — only to plunge anew with the pandemic. Then under Covid-19 conditions, American driving didn’t just become rarer; it became much worse, with reckless behavior and traffic fatalities surging — a trend variously attributed to increased drug and alcohol abuse, general psychic disturbance and the retreat from policing after the murder of George Floyd.

And now? In keeping with the unsettled, not-quite-post-pandemic landscape, so far in 2022 driving rates are back up despite the ridiculous price of gas (a return-to-normalcy indicator) but according to springtime estimates from the nonprofit National Safety Council, traffic fatality rates still seem to be running higher than before the pandemic began (a continuing-crisis indicator). All the uncertainties around American car culture remain: Will Gen Z learn to drive? Can the ride-share economy survive without venture-capital subsidies? Will electric cars take over? Will global energy prices stay elevated? Are self-driving cars for real?

Mindful of this backdrop, I spent some of my sparse nondriving hours during our cross-country trip reading Matthew Crawford’s “Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road.” Ill timed by its June 2020 publication, the book is the latest installment in Crawford’s running series of defenses of reality against virtuality, following his unexpected best seller from 2009, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” and 2015’s “The World Beyond Your Head.”

In this case Crawford is out to defend what he calls “homo moto,” the human being who moves purposively through the world rather than being simply carried through it, who uses a “car or a motorcycle as a kind of prosthetic that amplifies our embodied capacities,” who gains freedom, familiarity and mastery by navigating swiftly through a complex landscape.

Driving, Crawford argues, remains an important “form of organic civic life” and a “realm of interaction that demands the skills of cooperation and improvisation.” Whereas its possible replacements, especially the supposed self-driving utopia, transform democratic agents into isolated passengers moving under algorithmic power, no longer “mentally involved in our own navigation and locomotion,” ruled, scrutinized and passive.

If all that sounds like a flowery way of defending the current American roadscape, with its pollutions, accidents and miserable commutes — well, yes, sometimes the book is a little over-the-top. Especially because while Crawford wants to defend the road as a seedbed for democratic virtues, he is himself a natural automotive aristocrat — a well-trained mechanic who loves to refit battered vehicles, a motorcyclist drawn to intense auto-subcultures, a snob of speed who envisions a “regime of graduated driver’s licenses” that gives special latitude to the best drivers in the lightest, most maneuverable cars.

These parts of the book I found somewhat unrelatable. I have spent most of my life driving station wagons and minivans; our road trip’s automotive challenges — the oil change and the constant tire-pressure management — more or less exhausted my capacities for automotive tinkering; I find little romance in hyper-specific brands, and I doubt I would qualify for Crawford’s highest-ranking license.

At the same time, though, I do love to drive — yes, even unto hour 50 of a cross-country trip — and I love it for some of the psychological and political reasons his book describes.

Learning to drive as a teenager, even without a full-time vehicle of my own, was a clear demarcation point in the journey out of childhood, a fundamental change in my relationship to the grown-up world. Understanding the places I’ve lived through their roadways, even if I don’t quite have the skill of a London cabby, has always been crucial to feeling at home and responsible, an adult and a citizen embedded in a specific place. Like most people, I have my driving app to screen for traffic and carry me through the unfamiliar, but I always prefer to use it as a map — zooming out to contextualize the route, turning off the peremptory voice — rather than as an A.I. co-pilot.

And however illusory it may be in an age of GPS and ubiquitous surveillance, there’s still no feeling quite like the moment when the snarls of traffic and the dense-packed buildings fall away and you enter space that feels unmanaged, unscrutinized, independent and anonymous, with roads leading almost anywhere, north, south and west.

Certainly there are other ways to attain some of these feelings and experiences. The young adult in the big city might achieve a similar sense of adult transition or escape by mastering a complex subway or a medieval (or Bostonian) tangle of streets. The ideal urban neighborhood is knowable on foot or on a bicycle in the way that more sprawling areas are knowable by car. What I feel driving deep into the country someone else might feel with a backpack at the edge of a national park.

But the scale of America is incredibly well suited to the potential gifts of the automobile. There is a necessary mixing between cities and states and regions that can happen by car and never by any scheme for high-speed railroads, let alone the hapless and costly versions on offer from our existing transportation bureaucracy. The virtues involved in being a good driver — the mix of independence and cooperation, knowledge and responsibility — really are virtues well suited to citizenship in a sprawling and diverse republic. And if driving makes some people distinctly anxious, learning to do it well, or just well enough, is also a tonic for anxiety, an easily available antidote to the sense that the world is pure chaos, beyond anyone’s control.

That anxious, hopeless sense seems particularly widespread among younger Americans, the same group retreating from car culture, refusing or delaying the licenses that their parents and grandparents so eagerly obtained.

As with the decline of childbearing, this refusal is influenced by cost-of-living issues — in this case, the price of gas, the price of new and (under Covidian conditions) older cars, even the rising cost of driver’s ed — and also a vaguer save-the-planet sentiment, a thread of abstemious ecological piety.

But even young nondrivers who feel most financially justified or morally certain about their choices should weigh some of the ideas in Crawford’s book, and the realities of being a citizen of America in all its continental vastness.

If you do not drive your neighborhood or region, what form of adult mastery and knowledge are you seeking in its place? If you do not drive your country’s highways and byways, what path do you have to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble?

If you have strong answers to both questions, good. But lacking them, you should give the open road another look.

The New York Times

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