How is anyone allowed to drive?
How could the state ever authorize me to rip around in a steel box toward other steel boxes at speeds I can never biologically cope with? Not only am I allowed—through urban planning, our cities have nearly mandated this be how we get around and get by.
There is no way to directly control the speed of a car. A driver can only positively or negatively accelerate. I can’t get a vehicle to go the speed limit; I can only bob around it, pushing and pulling, pivoting my right foot. This stupid realization drove me wild in drivers training, when the road rules feel so authoritative and vivid. Must go exactly thirty in a thirty. (I clamped speed in with cruise control too often.) It’s still surreal on the highway, flying with my foot floating, coasting. It’s still irritating in stop-and-go traffic.
Pedal-pressing, when I think too hard about it, feels like sweeping on a curling team: I’m a step removed from really moving the thing. I’m only encouraging OR suppressing a careening stone, the precise placement of which I’m still expensively responsible for. Even as it’s second-nature, I don’t like the alienation.
One time I saw a hypothetical rendering of a human body evolved to withstand a car crash. He (?) looked like a frog. The neck was all muscle and the face was a cushion. I think it was a PSA for seat belts or airbag checks or something, but all it seemed to show me was that we’ve engineered a staple product that meets us at the inhuman. I was self-conscious about my supple, snappable neck for the rest of the day.
Maybe the cinematic fantasy of the open road isn’t about the desert scene, the classic rock music blaring out of the open convertible, or even the exhilarating speed itself—it’s the implied solitude, and thus safety. The roadster confidently straddles the double yellow dividing line—there isn’t a soul for miles around to collide with.
Speaking of dividers, another trite but horrifying observation: lanes are painted. Not veering off into an oncoming car is just a social contract. Passing semis on the highway is a handshake you better nail.
All transportation should be like the big city. The machines are hardly vehicles, more like indifferent, tightly coupled, automated systems of flow. People are cargo. As I ride the bus to and from work, I feel held in a tank. In a car, I feel like an egg piloting its carton.
In scenes of damsels tied to the train tracks by mustachioed villains, I imagine the unseen conductor as they approach. I imagine the train’s horn as their scream. I’m sure the conductor feels horror, but it’s the dread of inevitable and impending doom. There’s no responsibility. In the Trolley Problem, the philosophically tortured agent isn’t drawn as the conductor.
I’m hypersensitive about this because in seven years of driving, I’ve totaled two cars. I hate admitting that. It makes me feel pathetic. And the majority of my performative life is defined by not wanting to appear pathetic, young, or incompetent. But it’s facts. I only feel better about having totaled two cars because the “totaling” was more about economics that havoc. Both vehicles were so worthlessly old and injured in unlucky ways. Both were scrunched hoods, drivable actually, just not worth repairing.
But still. I can’t escape that, in a fumbled moment, I rammed my fast metal box into someone else’s, and mine lost, twice. It burns me up especially because I consider myself an exceptionally undistracted driver. I won’t do the forensic analysis of my two “incidents,” but I can recount them to sound like I did everything perfectly. Still, I was paranoid for weeks after, and I think this is really what was so shaking: being viscerally reminded of the sheer power I wield as transportation.
I’m kidding here, mostly. I love my car, and I usually drive without anxiety. But I do think it’s neat that we’ve made and proliferated technology that we have to mitigate to survive inside. We’ve actually done it a lot, and I think it needs defamiliarization. It’s becoming more and more dreadfully obvious that, on a global environmental scale, we’ve innovated beyond self-sabotage. What about the more tactile and street-level—the frames in which we literally sit and lurch and zoom? From the dawn of technology, from the summer before sixteen, we’ve only taught our feet to accelerate. It’s not a race at all. We’re just trying—I’m only trying to get home.