I have been driving for over 40 years. I calculate that I have driven well over a million miles. Sadly, what started out as a love affair has deteriorated into a hatred for everything about driving, including cars.
Some of my earliest childhood memories involve cars. In retrospect, this isn’t shocking given that the passing of the 1956 Highway Act ushered in the golden era of the automobile, allowing families like mine unprecedented access to travel, to “see the USA today in a Chevrolet.”
I remember every time a family in our neighborhood bought a new car because it was a grand affair. Everyone gathered at the proud new owner’s house and ogled the sleek and shiny machine. Everything about it was intoxicating, not least of all the “new car” smell. Everyone was jealous. The meaning of such a purchase extended far beyond having a new mode of transport: it was a statement about where your family stood in the socio-economic pecking order. Whispers spread like wildfire, from “they must be doing well,” to “I think they’re in over their heads.” Too young to appreciate brand differences, all I knew was that new car was pretty cool.
My brother is twelve years older than I, and in his teens (when I was only six or seven years old), he was struck with car fever. Family lore has it that my brother got so mad at my father’s refusal to buy him a Corvette that he went and signed up for the Navy in 1967. Apparently the fact that we could barely make the house payments was not a legitimate excuse. It just so happened that there was a little thing called the Vietnam War going on, so my brother’s decision seems a little rash in retrospect. But, like all brothers, all I could think of was whether the Corvette would be mine when he left? In the end, he didn’t get the Corvette but he did get to go to Vietnam. I wonder what it would have been like if he had gotten the car...probably a little something like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee...
As with all teenagers, getting my license was a defining moment. It was one of the first steps into adulthood. Suddenly you had freedom, as well as all the possibilities and responsibilities that come with it. At the ripe old age of sixteen, with all the wisdom you had accumulated, you were given legal access to a 4,000 pound piece of steel and glass that could hit speeds of 100 miles per hour. What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty of things could (and did) go wrong. Combine that 4,000 pound machine with a teenage boy’s sense of indestructability, and you begin to wonder how anyone survives their teenage years. I am sure anyone who grew up in the sixties and seventies can tell multiple stories about bad decisions and close calls on the road. You don’t have to delve too deep into your memories to find a classmate or friend whose life was brought to an abrupt end, or severally altered, due to teen driving.
Even with all those negatives in clear view, cars and driving were a central theme of high school life in California. Our generation perpetuated the car culture that we experienced in our neighborhoods as kids. If you don’t believe me, just watch Richard Linklater’s film “Dazed and Confused.” Set in 1976 Austin, Texas, the film captures what it was like to be 17 years old in the seventies. Watching this movie takes me right back to cruising around in cars trying to find “the party.” The movie captures so many things about that time, not least of which is how cars were an integral part of our young lives.
High school turned into college, which turned into entering the workforce, which meant I would be commuting. God, I hated commuting. On average, I commuted 10 hours a week for 30 years. At 50 weeks a year, that’s 15,000 hours or 625 days of my life spent commuting. Almost two years of my life were spent behind the wheel of a car, just going back and forth from work. That doesn’t even count the weekends driving kids to various activities for 15 of those years.
Through those years I bought all sorts of cars to ease the monotony of commuting and justify my decision to trade off suburban living with proximity to work. I don’t want to calculate how much money I have spent on cars and gas during those years. No matter what “tricks” I played on myself, I found that I disliked driving more and more as the years went by. With that has come an automobile ambivalence.
I can’t stand buying cars, maintaining them, or driving them. Any remnant of fascination with cars that I had in that neighborhood over 50 years ago as a young boy is long gone, and car commercials today just make me laugh. You won’t make your life better by buying a car. Driving it will only steal time from other, more productive activities. Even when the day of the self-driving car comes (which is sooner than I had ever thought possible), you will still be sitting in a car. You will truly be able to “see the USA in your Chevrolet” because you won’t even have to look at the road.
Now I’m lucky enough to have an office only seven miles from my house. I don’t think I could go back to spending two hours in a car every day. Having said that, this rant isn’t about how people should live their lives, or some kind of social commentary on natural resource depletion. It’s simply one man’s life experience. I chose to commute like millions of other people for many years. It was, and is, a reality for most people in the U.S. and the world. I am thankful I don’t have to do it anymore, but I also know it was necessary to get to this point.
Hopefully I will be riding my bicycle to the office in the near future and reduce my driving even more. Do you think teenage drivers have gotten better and won’t side swipe me on the road? Maybe I’ll walk.