Why Americans Will Start “Waking Up” as we start Driving Less

2,300 words
Read time @ 250 words/minute: 9 minutes

 

Table of Contents



Introduction

After getting my master’s degree, I left the country to travel a little of South America and develop my Spanish. For those eighteen months, I never drove a car. As you can imagine, I missed driving.

“I miss my caaaaaaaaar and can’t wait to drive it again!!” I often told my girlfriend in South America. I had to sit in the back or the passenger seat as these drivers accelerated, jerked, stopped, and “maneuvered” with inexperience, distraction, and at random: all tasks which we learn to navigate with grace as teenagers in the U.S! Perhaps I would have died if allowed to drive their streets (all traffic signals and signs are considered annoyances, rather than suggestions or enforceable laws), but goddammit, at least I would have died happy, while driving!

I missed driving. I missed my car.

That was true, and I hugged my car when we were first reunited again. I loved driving it.

I loved driving it for a few short hours, and liked driving it for a few short days. Then I remembered what I always knew but could never express:

I was dependent on my car, just like almost every American.

We are dependent on our cars. And as we start driving less, I believe we will start “waking up.”


Driving is like a second career.

This is an easy point to make: we are our own chauffeurs, and driving in America is an additional career.

But it’s worse: we are slaves here in America. We are slaves, chained to the dependency that our automobiles have become. We chauffeur ourselves to and from our jobs to buy our groceries, run our errands, visit our schools or even walk in a park. We chauffeur ourselves around without pay or thanks, and then arrive home nearly dead, with a visual cortex which has been overloaded with processing information at fast speeds, combined with a body that has hardly moved a muscle.

This is dangerous for us as individuals, and it is disastrous for us as a nation. It is so important that it goes far beyond the scope of this essay/post, and I believe this dependence has negatively affected nearly every aspect of American life for the past few generations.


We have lost the ability to converse and think

Some Americans only have the ability to have long conversations or truly contemplate their lives while driving.

I had a girlfriend who always wanted to have long, intricate conversations about complicated topics while in the car. I said I’d consider this on the interstate, since that was the “easy” driving, but I still hated it. I’d prefer to do it outside, whether while moving or while standing/sitting, but always outside. After probing for a while, it turns out that the only quality conversations she ever really had with her father were while on the road with him.

This, sadly, is very American. Many of us only know how to converse or truly think about our lives while managing a vehicle at high speeds on the open road. Unfortunately, when we need to change lanes or perform another simple task? That deep thinking “goes out the window” until we’re back to unconscious driving. We have become such experts at visually ignoring all this information on the road — the road signs, the fast lines moving — that we don’t realize that we’re thinking inside of a simulation for the mind.

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This is not true, of course, for certain groups of people:

  • “Elite” politicians, businessmen, and others. They often have bodyguards, security/service members, or chauffeurs who perform their transport by automobile. This further separates them into a self-engrossed “bubble” far away from the average American, who must drive to live.
  • New Yorkers. I love New Yorkers, but did you know there are now entire generations of families in NYC which have never truly been dependent on their vehicles? New Yorkers like to complain when there are subway problems and they must walk 30 minutes to their destination before, eventually, they return to their homes via that same subway which has now quickly been repaired/resolved. They forget, to their detriment, that many Americans have access to little, if anything, within 30 minutes walking distance. It is no wonder they can’t empathize with the rest of their country and have drifted into a political bubble.

Driving is a “simulation for the mind.”

The “visual cortex” is the portion of the brain that processes visual information. I may not have the evidence from neuroscience, but I’m going to argue this anyway: every single bit of light that enters your eyes is processed by the brain.

But we evolved to process lots of visual information while moving. The faster we’re moving, the faster the visual cortex must process information, to be sure. But the faster we’re moving, the faster our legs are pumping lymph and our hearts are pumping blood.

In a world of vehicles, planes, trains, bikes, and video games, this is a problem. Our visual cortexes are overstressed, both in the short-term and the long-term. Part of the brain “thinks” it’s moving at incredibly high speeds; the rest of the brain knows it’s sitting still. Our brains are confused, and we’re frustrated before we even know it.

When we start driving, it’s not just challenging, it’s damn stressful. Ever meet anyone who learned to drive as a teenager — who learned to drive manual(stick shift) from scratch? It’s far more stressful than learning to drive an automatic. Indeed, for many drivers, it’s downright terrifying. And that makes sense! The visual cortex must process massive amounts of information about other cars, street signs, signals, lines, people, trees, curbs, weather, and random events; all while the muscles of the feet and hands do relatively nothing to stimulate the necessary blood flow.

In a video game, the brain is far more engaged. The bigger the screen, the more serious the video game, and the more the visual cortex — and thus the rest of the brain — is engaged. More serious games are, in my opinion, more taxing for the visual cortex, but also more rewarding when you eventually “win.” This is because in many games you need to truly focus your mind for long periods of time: a few minutes here, twenty minutes there to get a mediocre “win”, and hours to truly develop your skills and feel satisfied within the game. Then, once satisfied, you move on to conquer even bigger challenges. This is the way “real life” is supposed to be for human beings, but driving robs us of that satisfaction. As teenagers, we may feel a successful “win” when we arrive to our destination the first few dozen times. But not after ten thousand repetitions.

Video games at least let you focus for long stretches of time. The visual cortext didn’t evolve to do that kind of work without adequate blood flow, but the brain did evolve to focus and imagine for long stretches of time. So video games beat driving for that reason. Angry birds, Plants vs. Zombies, or the latest smartphone downloads are too short-term to really grant us the benefits that Jane McGonigal describes in her TED talk [x]. Long-term, deeply engrossing games are best. One may argue they promote anti-social behavior (I do not), but at least the “simulation” is better for the mind than is driving.

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My first position in the Air Force was as an enlisted crew member aboard a large surveillance aircraft. The computer screens and displays were rather old technology, as would be expected. Thus, when people asked me what the “job” was like, I would say, “It’s like playing a really boring government video game.”

Driving is similar.

Driving, in a sense, is a video game. Except driving is incredibly dangerous, risky, boring, and unrewarding. At least with video games we’re not fooling ourselves.


I didn’t want to be a pilot, I wanted to stare out the window and daydream.

I finished my Bachelor’s while in the Air Force, making me eligible to apply to become an officer, and potentially even a pilot. It would be a good life, I thought: a healthy balance of structure and freedom, endless career possibilities, excellent pay and benefits, stability, adventure… everything anyone would want in a solid life and job.

I’d stared out the windows of our large aircraft over the skies of North America and the Middle East for countless hours before. Rivers. Oceans. Infinite colors of the sun’s bending rays skirting the horizon and striking the clouds. Moonlight. Lightning. Eternal stretches of nothing at all corners of the earth. Passion. Boredom. Friendship and fear at a range of altitudes. I had soared, to be sure. I had “tasted flight,” and my eyes have forever been “turned skywards,” as da Vinci said.

But I had never piloted. And so I had to address a question: would I actually enjoy being a pilot?

I had to know. During training for my second aviation position in the Air Force, I paid a little money for the first few hours of private pilot lessons. I studied the books, began the computerized lessons, went through the preflight checklists, and took to the skies.

And within about five hours of piloting, it hit me: I’m not passionate about piloting the damn aircraft, I’m only passionate about looking out the window and daydreaming!

Armed with this self-realization, I could resist the temptation for officer training school and, years later, apply for a master’s degree in biology.

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Piloting, too, is a “simulation for the mind” as I argue for driving.

But piloting is different from driving a vehicle in a hundred ways. Pilots take it seriously as a career. Pilots have countless safety regulations. They follow checklists. They regularly re-certify. Their employers ensure pilots are healthy. They almost always require co-pilots. Pilots are allowed long breaks while the autopilot/copilot maintains safe control. Pilots require hundreds of hours before mediocre positions and thousands of hours of experience before high-level positions, all of which must be logged.

I cannot call the act of driving a vehicle “piloting” not because it is not a serious act, and a job unto itself. I cannot call it piloting because it is an insult to those who pilot aircraft.

Be wary, America, of telling yourself you actually enjoy driving the vehicle.

Chances are you simply enjoy staring out the window, lost in thought.

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Want to daydream? Sitting with your eyes closed, especially with an eye mask, is far safer and more effective than driving.


By “waking up,” I mean: focusing on what’s important in our lives.

By “waking up,” I mean, simply: focusing on what’s important in your life. Food. Sex. Sleep. Time with loved ones. Physical and mental challenges, both set by oneself and by others’.

Human beings and our ancestors have been happy without cars for thousands of thousands of years before this invention. I envy the thrill of the race car driver or the power of the construction vehicle. But those are chosen professional careers behind a different wheel, whereas most Americans are simply working a second job.

Being dependent on an automobile to purchase groceries or visit a nearby park is not freedom. It is the very opposite of freedom; it is un-American.


What can I do?

Drive less.

“But I…”

No excuses. Drive less.

These changes will take several decades to really ripple throughout our society, and even longer to affect the rest of the world. For now, if we minimize our driving time and realize that driving makes us less happy, not more, we’re already on a road called improvement.

Here are some tips for who respond with the excuse “But I…”:

  • Perform all errands, for example, on the same day.
  • Eat after staying in the car for long periods of time, not before. Walk after eating.
  • Listen to music or podcasts or audiobooks, but know when you’re overloaded and it’s time to drive silently for a while.
  • Talk to yourself: rehearse meetings, conversations, or “what if I’d…” for past memories.
  • Imagine if there were a child in the car: how would you make the drive fun? Do that for yourself.
  • Stimulate blood flow while driving. Be creative.
  • Choose your own adventure!

Conclusion

It has not escaped my notice that the decline and eventual cessation of constitutional amendments correlates with the rise in prevalence of the American car. This, of course, is a topic for tomorrow.

Driving has stressed our lives and stressed our societies, and we will not emerge, as a nation, from this “intellectual depression,” until we rein in and reduce the amounts we drive — or let our machines drive for us.

I titled this essay/post/whatever “Why Americans will start “waking up” as they start driving less,” with the goal to convince you of that. Have I? If not, why? I’d love feedback. Does a section or the argument not make sense?

In any case, although I may need to strengthen the clarity of the explanations, the organization of the paragraphs, or make greater changes, I strongly believe we’ll all start “waking up” as a nation as we start driving less. Then, I hope, we can lead the rest of the world to do the same.