What drives the Americans

Summer (to paraphrase Lord Tennyson) is the time when an American's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of cars. This summer in particular, Americans in sharply increasing numbers are taking motor trips.

Here, of course, the word is "driving." The rather peaceful English verb, "to motor," in this country calls up visions of Model A Fords, goggles, and floor-length driving coats. Americans, true to their penchant for energetic activity, prefer the verb "to drive" -- which my dictionary also defines as "to advance violently" and "to force to go."

Some of them, of course, do it just that way -- which accounts for the increasing concern over highway accidents and the reheating of the debate over mandatory safety devices in cars. The Reagan administration, in its free enterprise philosophy, wants to relax requirements -- to the relief of the already beleaguered automakers, who claim that seat belts and similar items and large dollars to sticker prices on new cars.

But for most Americans, the appeal of the open road overrides any worry about such costs. There are, to be sure, a lot of roads in this far-flung country -- some 3.8 million miles, according to government statistics.Moreover, they are well used. In a nation with a rail system that is laughable by continental standards, 9 out of 10 people get to work in cars. It's also a nation of long-haulers, travelers who depend on the 39,000 miles of an interstate highway system so wide, smooth, and gently graded that one hardly need slow down between New York and Los Angeles.

Slowness, of course, is realtive; and highway travel is clearly not as fast as it used to be. When the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit came in during the '70s, it potholed some long-established habits. The older, more winding East Coast roads were not badly hit, with some states having to drop only from a top speed of 65. But things were tougher in the wild West. The speed limit on the Kansas Turnpike, for example, was a legal 80 and a customary 85 or 90. The 400-mile round trip from Kansas City to Wichita -- a distance many Americans think nothing of -- used to take 4.5 hours. At 55 it takes more than 7 hours.

Americans, nevertheless, are taking to the asphalt (a less intimate word for "macadam," named after an 18th-century Scotsman) in droves. The American Automobile Association (AAA) talks of a 15 percent increase in recreation travelers over last year.

Why this upsurge?

Some lay it at the door of gasoline prices, which have stabilized under pressure from a much-discussed oil glut in Western nations. Also getting through: the message of inflation. Many, convinced that travel will be no cheaper next year, strike while the tires are hot. ADd to this the perception that the dollar buys less overseas than it used to (which, even given the surge of strength in the dollar in the last eight months, remains a common belief), coupled with the increasing cost of air fares, and the reasons for taking a vacation closer to home become clearer. Travel writers, not to be left behind, are leaping aboard: this summer the newspapers have carried whole series of stories on short-distance vacations.

All these resons for the upsurge make sense, of course, when you look at them up close. But I think that there is something more profound at work here -- that the real reason for America's fascination with driving comes from something far more deeply rooted in the nation's sense of itself. For Americans, in the end, do not look on cars as a way of getting somewhere. Nor do they unfailingly see them (as some European observers say) as measures of status. They see them, instead, as environments.

I'm not talking only about those who carry a weird penchant for interior decoration into their automobiles -- although, as they carpet the walls, install stereos and televisions, and hang fringe and draperies in the windows, they produce manifestation of the phenomenon.The idea extends to the ordinary driver as well. This is, after all, a nation of drive-in movies, banks, hamburger stands -- and now even churches. This is not, most Europeans note, a nation of walkers. Whatever you can do to keep an American in his car, it seems, will be a success.

Where does this sense of car-as-environment come from? Does it stem from a collective recollection of the great westward migration, where the covered wagon was home? Does it comes from the sheer distances that one travels in this country -- so that, unless one can grow wholly accustomed to living in a car, one perforce stays in one place? Is it part of America's fascination with the modern? Is it simply a national unwillingness to be uncomfortable, to say in one's Detroit-made armchair rather than exercise one's legs? Is it an almost frontiersmanlike desire to be alone, to be isolated in one's own little world rather than rub shoulders among hoi polloi?m

Whatever the answer, the phenomenon manifest itself everywhere you turn -- since, nearly everywhere you turn in urban America, there is a parking lot. We went to one the other night. To shop? To visit local sights? Not at all. We went to listen to a band concert. There they were, the local musicians, playing away in a bandstand on a thin strip of lawn between a harbor and the lot. There was the audience, lined up in cars, sitting behind glass and steel with only the side windows down for the sounds of the mild summer evening.

And for applause? You guessed it. They honked their horns.

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