The automobile has been an integral part of the American ethos for more than a century. It combines many American ideals: individualism, freedom, technological innovation, and the desire to continually go farther and faster. Thomas Jefferson was prescient in identifying three inalienable driving rights: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
We depend on our cars to get us to work, get to the grocery store, and get the kids to school. But many people now find driving of little interest. They have better things to do than drive, even when they’re behind the wheel of a car.
Driver’s ed instructors used to teach the basics of defensive driving: keep your eyes moving, follow at a safe distance, anticipate what the other guy is going to do, and always leave yourself an out.
Technology has provided many safety enhancements, from low-tech seat belts, to air bags, anti-lock brakes, and stability control. And for many years, America’s roads became safer every year as these features became standard equipment on every new car.
But technology has also provided distractions: texting, phone calls, and even using the internet take precedence over the task of driving safely. And the car has become a hub of highly complex systems, with touch screens and multi-layer menus that distract from the primary task of driving.
And while the technology already exists to perform the basic dynamic driving tasks of lateral and longitudinal control and many cars have sophisticated sensors and automation to assist the driver, people not necessarily better drivers with more technological assistance. Nor are they safer drivers.
Traffic fatalities in the US have steadily decreased since the end of World War II. Until 2015. In 2014, the fatality rate was 1.08 per billion vehicle miles traveled. That’s an all-time low. The rate increased more than 10% in 2015 to 1.15, and another 5% in 2016 to 1.18.
With more safety features and driver assistance systems available, driving has become less safe. What explanation can there be other than a decline in driving skill and concomitant increase in distraction?
If cars had existed in 1787, the Second Amendment would probably have had a second part: the right of the people to go wherever they want, whenever they want, shall not be infringed.
While people do drive cars to go where they want when they want, the automobile is far more than transportation to many drivers. Getting the keys to the family car used to be the first real taste of freedom and independence for many teenagers.
The road trip is as probably only one day younger than the automobile itself. The US Interstate Highway System was created to enhance American freedom. It was originally created for national defense, to provide the ability for the military to mobilize rapidly. It also gave Americans unprecedented rapid mobility. A road trip across the continent is now possible in less than two days. Google Maps says one can cover the 2,800 miles from LA to New York in 41 hours.
The Pursuit of Happiness
A large segment of an entire generation seems to have little interest in driving, in car ownership, in using a car as anything other than a means to get from one place to another. They’re not interested in operating something that can’t be controlled with two thumbs.
They’re missing out on what a steadily declining number of people find quite pleasurable: the very act of driving itself. The feeling of movement, both kinetic and kinesthetic, is unmatched by almost any other human activity.
Kinetically, we sense the motion of the car – the sight of the roadside rushing by, the sound of the engine, the feel of the wind, and the smell of the exhaust. Kinesthetically, we’re involved (hopefully) with all four limbs. And psychically, we enjoy the feeling of control and finding the limits of the machine and our skill. There is great satisfaction in mastering heel-toe, rev-matching, and making the perfect exit from a corner.
As cars become more “connected”, people have become disconnected from the driving experience. The car is a convenient appliance, with many options to entertain one’s self while becoming removed from the operation of the vehicle.
The manual transmission is on the endangered species list. Many drivers see the tasks of pressing the clutch and shifting gears to be laborious, not involving.
Consider this a call to arms – and legs. Bring on the disconnected car. Drive like your life depends on it. Because it does. When you get in the car, buckle up, cell phone down, and drive! Go where you want whenever you want. And get involved with the car and the road. Those of us who value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must defend the right to drive.