Beyond texting while driving: we're car crazy

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The first relics of homo automobilius date from the early 20th century. Before he arrived on the scene, there were competing species – predominantly homo perambulatus, but also equus, bicyclius, and locomotus.

“Auto man” quickly supplanted them.

Cities were reconfigured and new social rites enacted, including twice-a-day mass migrations known as The Commute. Other cultural totems included talk radio, fuzzy dice, and the existential question children in the back seat ask: “Are we there yet?”

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From suburban sprawl to fast-food joints, spaghetti-bowl intersections to big-box stores, humans and their automobiles have been a symbiotic tidal wave over the past 100 years, altering the landscape, the atmosphere, and the way we live. The automobile has freed us to roam the countryside, seeking jobs and social contacts far from home.

Within the cabins of our cars, we think, dine, listen to music, meditate, argue, profess love, counsel a youngster, phone a parent, shave stubble, fix makeup, check e-mail, text pals, and occasionally just keep our eyes on the road and drive.

Our lives are so entwined with the automobile that we have allowed an inordinate amount of our daily routine to take place inside these powerful exoskeletons. We are distracted drivers. Many people are rightly worried about this. Safety, of course, is the overriding concern because of the lethality of two tons of inertial mass under the control of an inattentive operator. (Click here for an in-depth Monitor report on the problem)

A case could also be made that humans have gotten in much too deep with their cars.

A quick tour of 20th-century literature shows how embedded the auto has become in our psyche – from Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (autos = fortunes and status) to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (autos = escape). Chase scenes, road trips, lovers’ lanes, bank heists, and dozens of other movie motifs depend on a nice set of wheels. Hundreds of songs have romanticized the car.

Cars have even been anthropomorphized, though if you never saw the TV classic “My Mother, the Car” you haven’t missed anything.

I’ve had a like/dislike relationship with automobiles all my life. Like the Beach Boys, I love to get around.

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