Beyond texting while driving: we're car crazy

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?”

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.

But I also get bugged driving up and down the same old strip, especially when there’s a left-lane breakdown at 7:30 a.m.

When I was a teenager, my brother Mark and I pooled our money and bought a used highway patrol car at a state auction. It was (I’m relying on an e-mail from Mark, who is much more mechanically inclined than I) a “1970 Plymouth Fury, copper/tan, with a 383 cubic inch V-8, police interceptor package, and a four-barrel carburetor.” Mark installed an oil-pressure gauge.

“Don’t ask me why,” he says. “You would have to be about 18 years old to understand.”

It was a sweet ride. On deserted highways that slice through the moonscape of West Texas, the Fury could almost get airborne (that is just conjecture, kids).A few years later, living in Dallas, I experimented with abandoning my car and biking. When I was first working for the Monitor in Washington, D.C., my wife and I lived carless for six months. There’s much to recommend such choices. In fact, a surprising number of the species that predated auto man thrive in places like Manhattan and Boulder, Colo.

But in the end, the need to traverse long distances and not to be reliant on the hub-and-spoke systems of public transit have always brought me back to the car as a necessity. It would take vast reengineering – urban, social, personal – to remove the automobile from our lives.Auto man is here to stay. So, yes, the least he can do is hang up and drive.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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