Thursday, July 28, 2011
The other day, while I was exiting the freeway, something came flying off of the car in front of me. It looked like a dog. A spread-eagle, floppy-eared dog, flying from their car, about to smash into mine.
Instinctively, I moved my head to the side like I was slipping a punch, as though that would be of any help once this thing came crashing through my windshield.
But when the thing hit the glass, it flattened out and slid innocuously down the side of my car. Turns out it was a plastic bag, momentarily inflated by the wind of the freeway into a surprisingly dog-like shape.
When I first started commuting on the freeway, incidents like this—everyday incidents of imminent or seemingly-imminent danger—used to spike my adrenaline for ten minutes. A car swerving into my lane, water obstructing my windshield in a rainstorm, cars braking suddenly ahead of me. These situations occurred almost every day during my half-hour commute. If they went wrong, any one of them could injure or kill me or another driver. It was terrifying. How did people deal with this, the stress of a life-or-death struggle for survival each day, on the way to and from work?
Now, after years of my commute, my adrenal system has adjusted to these constant assaults. I recover from the terror of impending death quickly, in seconds rather than minutes. Ah yes, almost died again! Back to business! If I were safely aboard a roller-coaster, a scare like this would leave me shaken, frightened, exhilarated. But faced with an actual brush with death, drivers are calm, nonchalant, fiddling with the radio and thinking about lunch.
When we fly in airplanes, we are aware of the unnaturalness of the process. We are four-thousand feet in the air, hurtling forward at 500 miles per hour. This is nothing our bodies were designed to experience. We think about the space below us, between us and the ground, about what would happen if the bottom of that plane weren’t there. Even the more calm passengers gasp when the plane buckles and drops in a patch of rough air.
We should feel like that in a car. Our bodies weren’t made to move at eighty or even twenty-five miles per hour any more than they were made to fly thousands of feet in the air. We should have the same feelings of wrongness, of recognizing our own fragility as we pretend to be birds or cheetahs. But we are raised in cars, lulled to sleep as children by their gentle rocking motions, packed into their backseats for family trips, told that we are true adults when we learn how to command one ourselves. So we minimize the terror, or even come to enjoy it. People who are scared of driving are told they are crazy, that they have anxiety, that they require medication. They are not told, Navigating a two-ton vehicle that could easily kill you or someone else is pretty stressful. Maybe you shouldn’t do it.
Most people seem to believe the anonymity of the other drivers is what leads to the irrational anger that we feel when we drive, and I agree. It’s easy to be furious with someone you can barely see, someone driving too slowly, or too quickly, someone getting in your way. On foot, we stop for each other, hold doors open, give a wide berth to someone tapping a cane or using a wheelchair. On the road, we see not people but cars, faceless machines, machines that obstruct and endanger us as we maneuver our own machines around them.
But I think our rage must be fueled by a second factor: the constant, low-lying terror of death. The cars that get in our way are not only annoying us, like someone pushing past us on a busy sidewalk; they’re endangering our lives. Even when we are furious about someone too slow, someone getting in our way, the driving equivalent of the old lady pushing her walker down the sidewalk, I think it is our terror that enrages us. Surely, some part of our rational brains must have to shut down in order for us to not experience constant terror when we drive, and so we cannot think rationally. We don’t think, This man driving too slow in the fast lane is probably confused, or from another country with different rules, or unaware of his speed. Poor guy. I should be nice to him. No, we hate the man, make a point to glare at him as we pass by, cut aggressively in front of him as soon as we have passed him on the right. The qualities of kindness and empathy that are so carefully socialized into us as small children disappear, and all that is left is the logic of war.