Cars v. Phones: There’s no such thing as a good driver

Our relationships with our cars are intensely personal. All the time spent driving our cars affects our personalities, our opinions, and our identities. Eventually, our car becomes a key part of who we are. This deep attachment is one reason why behavior surrounding cell phone use in cars is so paradoxical. Even though they know its extremely dangerous, people continue use their phones while driving (OMG!). In my opinion, one of the causes of this kind of attitude is the intensely personal attachments we form with our cars, and with our driving. We think of ourselves as “good drivers”, immune to accidents.

Ryan Gosling driving in the movie Drive.

The way this happens is interesting. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out long ago, cars become extensions of our bodies, so that the space in front of our bumper is “personal space” that we defend. Likewise, the psychology of driving is marked by “territoriality, frustration, modeling influences, and sustained arousal” that leads to aggression and serious stress [1]. That’s why any political issue having to do with cars (or bikes) tends to arouse such intense emotion [2], and becomes such easy fodder for news media. People are extremely attached to their cars, and form all kinds of strong opinions about how to drive.

One of the things I noticed while listening to the (semi-ridiculous) MPR call-in show about the cell phone ban was how closely people identify with the act of driving. Despite the fact that 99% of the decisions you make while driving a car are automatic, regimented, and involve very few choices, while driving we all assume and act like we’re making extremely personal decisions.

In fact, even the “best” of drivers are in grave danger of having an accident. Even the “fastest” or “smartest” driver on the freeway probably only saves him or herself a few scant seconds in time. Yet we like to pretend that the way we drive is a huge decision, that switching lanes is a kind of revolutionary act.

The truth is that there’s really no such thing as a good or bad driver. There is only distraction. Your set of “skills” and whether you’re a “good driver” doesn’t really matter. The main thing that matters is how much you’re paying attention [3].

That’s why the conversation needs to be on technology, not personality. There are only telephones, cars, freeways, drive thrus, iPads, iPods, smart phones, laptops, and the always accelerating pace of life. We need to stop thinking about driving as somehow reflecting our identity. Driving is a relatively simple thing that requires our attention. Decades of transportation research has been devoted to making driving as easy and as safe as possible. Unfortunately, that’s had the perverse effect of allowing us to pay less and less attention to the road, as we go about our lives behind the wheel.

 

[1] Marsh, P. and Collett, P. (1986) Driving Passions: The Psychology of the Car. London: Jonathan Cape.
[2] Novaco, R. (1991) “Automobile Driving and Aggressive Behavior.” In Wachs, M. and Crawford, M. (eds.) The Car and The City. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
[3] See Laurier. et. al. (2008) “Driving and ‘Passengering’: Notes on the ordinary organization of car travel.” Mobilities 3(1): 1-23.

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