Posts from the "Car Culture" Category
Premiering this weekend, the A&E series promises to show viewers the arc of the students’ skills as they transition from “flustered pupils into safe and sensible drivers.” But when you get down to it, the producers seem to be betting that “Last Chance Driving School” will have the same kind of appeal as American Idol auditions: The audience will get to see people humiliate themselves.
So in place of the Kelly Clarkson wannabes warbling off-key, the viewing public will watch incompetent motorists cause chaos on NYC’s pedestrian-rich streets in their bid for a lifetime of driving privileges. (Sample episode summary: “Fiesty Brazilian firecracker Carla gets Pete worked up with her road rage in Manhattan and Carlos takes to the streets with Sabina, one of the craziest and most dangerous drivers the school has ever seen!”)
A casting call sent out to an Astoria message board last fall went like so:
If you or someone you know live in New York and desperately need help passing your DRIVER’S TEST we can help!
We are looking for people with little to no driving experience. If you have never been behind the wheel of a car or terrified of driving, we are looking for you!
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group has been crunching the numbers on travel preferences among young Americans — and the news is not good for auto makers.
The report — Transportation and the New Generation — is chock-full of nuggets like this:
Driving is down: “From 2001 to 2009, the annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent.”
Biking is up: “In 2009, 16- to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.”
Young people even reported consciously driving less to save the environment. “Sixteen percent of 18- to 34-year-olds polled said they strongly agreed with the statement, ‘I want to protect the environment, so I drive less.’ This is compared to approximately nine percent of older generations.”
The trend toward non-automobile transportation options was even more pronounced among higher-income Americans, notable because this group is less likely to be motivated by economic concerns. “From 2001 to 2009, young people (16- to 34-year-olds) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.”
A number of factors are thought to be contributing to the trend. Some states now require “graduated” driver’s licensing, making young people pass multiple driving tests and hold learner’s permits longer before they earn full privileges. Higher gas prices, obviously, help put owning a car out of reach for many younger Americans, especially as the age group struggles in a less-favorable job market. Finally, technology, specifically smartphones, and their incompatibility with (safe) driving, help make alternatives that much more inviting.
I am ambivalent about the Volvo pedestrian airbag, as seen via Laughing Squid. On one hand, it seems like another way for automakers to help people shirk responsibility for how they drive. Plus, as currently designed, it looks like it’s intended to minimize windshield damage as much as anything.
On the other hand, it is a fact that a lot of people get hit by drivers, and many of them die after making contact with the windshield. It’s entirely possible that this design could save more than a few lives.
What do you think?
(h/t to dave)
Ian Lockwood, a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, wrote in with his take on the driverless car fantasy:
Just think, five-year-olds will finally have their own cars to take them to birthday parties, play-dates, and kindergarten. Elementary schools could be the size of regional high schools (think of the economies of scale) and have the big parking lots too. Commutes could be four hours long because car occupants could recline their seats and go to sleep. Think of the new sprawl opportunities. Designated drivers would be obsolete; so, let’s everyone get drunk! If there is no parking spot at the restaurant, then no problem; just have your car drive around the block a few hundred times while you eat supper. People in cars could text all they want, yak on the phone continuously, or surf the internet on their computers; think of the productivity gains. Taxi drivers would not exist anymore which begs the question, “Would the driverless taxis take you the long way too?”
Trucks could be driverless too; which would make Wal-Mart even more profitable. Their 80,000 pound steel boxes could drive around town automatically 24 hours a day. Why put people in all the cars, anyway? Some cars could evolve into highly mobile robots. Without the huge passenger volume, new designs of mobile robots would exist; sleek ones, tall ones, small ones, fun ones, etc. Robots could deliver pizzas, run errands, display moving billboards, and be used to bomb sensitive targets without the need of someone to commit suicide. However, all of this might be worth it for a particular household on a street in Brookline because cars would no longer have horns. Even Mumbai’s streets might be quiet. After a few generations, literary scholars would write papers and have long debates about, “What was the real purpose of Honku?”
Mr. Lockwood, as it happens, is an accomplished amateur cartoonist. We’ll be featuring his work on Tuesdays, reviving an old Streetsblog tradition.
Recently, I shared with a car enthusiast friend that I would never enjoy driving as much as he did, in part because cars scared me a little. I had experienced crashes and lost loved ones to them, I explained, which had a lasting effect. This struck him as both silly (who’s afraid of cars?) and serious (what’s life without the joy of driving?). He had an easy solution, though: Take an advanced driving skills class. My fear, if warranted, would be swept away by my improved ability or, if unwarranted, by my newfound confidence.
I balked at the suggestion. Surely, better drivers’ education would make roads less dangerous, and someone with a genuine phobia of cars might suffer in our auto-centric world. But we’d also all be a good deal safer if more drivers held a bit more fear.
Despite advances in traffic and car safety, driving remains the most perilous thing most of us do each day. And though the average American is more likely to be killed with a car than with a gun, on the whole, drivers have little anxiety about driving. Hubris is just one of several reasons why. The propensity of drivers to overestimate their ability has been well documented, especially by Tom Vanderbilt. In Traffic, he explains how the false sense of control and ease driving provides, along with humans’ inability to self-assess, allows most drivers to rate themselves “above average.” The dangerous outcome is a “narcissism” that encourages aggressive driving.
“Do the thing we fear, and the death of fear is certain,” Emerson wrote. Do the thing several times a day, and it becomes banal. Though how much and how fast we drive are key determinants of crash risk, driving everywhere, no matter how short the trip, and speeding, no matter how little time is saved, have been normalized. This normalization is what makes crashes, when they happen, so difficult to process. One grief counselor described how a client, struggling to grasp his brother’s death in a crash, sat in her office “week after week saying, ‘He just went to get milk.’”
There are other reasons why we view our chances of crashing as remote. Scant media coverage of crashes, unless somehow anomalous and spectacular — a plane landing on a New Jersey highway, killing five, a nineteen-vehicle pile-up in Florida — helps encourage our sense of invulnerability. The efficiency of modern crash response makes everyday disasters less visible and reduces rubbernecking, which can snarl traffic and be dangerous but serves a purpose. Seeing is believing.
There’s a University of Maryland study making the rounds today that links pedestrian fatalities with the wearing of headphones — a three-fold increase over the last seven years. Judging from the breathless headlines, the causation is clear. “Study Shows Sharp Rise in Accidents Involving Tuned-Out Pedestrians,” reads the Chicago Tribune. “Fatal Distraction,” says MSNBC. “Music to Die For,” sneers the Post.
But a closer look reveals some major caveats. First, the study relied on notoriously unreliable media reports to come up with 116 cases, between 2004 and 2011, in which pedestrians were killed or injured while wearing headphones (total U.S. pedestrian deaths during those years numbered in the tens of thousands). The majority of victims cited in the study were struck by trains, not cars, which as much as anything could call into question the perils of walking on train tracks — or the need for safer pedestrian thoroughfares.
Researchers noted that the overall use of headphones probably increased during the study period. If the study has any evidence that not wearing headphones is safer than wearing headphones, none of the press accounts we’ve seen have picked it up.
Then there’s this detail, reported by NPR:
The study is not the last word on the subject, the researchers concede. Because the data are drawn from media reports, they cannot say conclusively whether accident victims might have also had mental problems or drivers might have been at fault, for example.
Come again? With no accounting for driver error, this study isn’t worth the paper its printed on. In taking motor vehicles and their operators out of the equation, you might as well pin pedestrian deaths on Chuck Taylor tennis shoes or Orbit chewing gum.
Even if you start from the premise that the onus is on pedestrians to protect themselves from powerful multi-ton vehicles, the findings here are suspect at best. And though lead author Richard Lichenstein acknowledges that the study is basically a conversation-starter, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Stories like the ones circulating today lend credence to the idea that traffic crashes are as unpreventable as natural disasters, and the best we can do is remain vigilant and hope we don’t die. When a paper like the New York Post sees a chance to pen a victim-blaming headline, it doesn’t sweat the small print.
It’s sad, really. Tremendous gains in vehicle fuel efficiency have been squandered, MIT’s Christopher Knittel demonstrates in a study published in the American Economic Review. Knittel’s analysis quantifies how, while automakers have applied meaningful fuel economy innovations over the past several decades, these have produced only modest gains in miles per gallon, because at the same time the companies inflated horsepower and vehicle size. As MIT’s press release put it:
Thus if Americans today were driving cars of the same size and power that were typical in 1980, the country’s fleet of autos would have jumped from an average of about 23 miles per gallon (mpg) to roughly 37 mpg, well above the current average of around 27 mpg. Instead, Knittel says, “Most of that technological progress has gone into [compensating for] weight and horsepower.”
Based on this history, Knittel rightly concludes that market forces cannot drive the social and environmental good of fuel efficiency; he supports an increase in the gas tax. Unfortunately, he goes on to perpetuate a convenient fallacy that has provided cover for an industry looking to evade regulation and avoid responsibility:
“I find little fault with the auto manufacturers, because there has been no incentive to put technologies into overall fuel economy,” Knittel says. “Firms are going to give consumers what they want, and if gas prices are low, consumers are going to want big, fast cars.”
In response to calls for less polluting or less dangerous vehicles, the auto industry has often depicted itself as hostage to a voracious, and quite imaginative, consumer mob that stands in the way of such progress. Apparently, car buyers expend great energy dreaming up spectacular new ideas for cars, which they then conspire to demand from the industry.
NHTSA should act swiftly and decisively on the plethora of distracting technologies being built into vehicles.
The truth is, consumers rarely want a product that they don’t know exists or that doesn’t exist yet. As marketing expert James Twitchell puts it, “In reality people often do not know what they want until they learn what others are consuming. Desire is contagious, just like the flu.” It isn’t until they see others wanting a product — in the media or in real life — that consumers start to want it.
Suburbanites across America were not collectively thunderstruck in the 1980s by the realization that living the good life meant clambering up into a giant vehicle. Instead, automakers, eager to sell more high-margin products, took advantage of regulatory loopholes to push bigger and bigger vehicles. They repositioned clunky trucks as “sport utility vehicles,” transforming them into symbols of wealth, leisure, and suburban family values. In ads, they implied that SUVs were safer by virtue of their heft and hammered on the need for capacious cargo space. The effort was so successful that despite the recession and outcry over gas prices, SUVs and SUV crossovers currently account for 31 percent of U.S. auto sales.
While the choked parking lots at many suburban high schools might mislead you, young people today are less interested in driving and owning cars than their counterparts in previous generations. This is happy news for environmentalists and complete streets advocates, who see fewer vehicles on the road as key to a healthier, wealthier society. For the global auto industry, though, it is an existential threat not to be ignored.
Generation Y’s reluctance to embrace car culture may be temporary, reflecting merely the tough economic times, especially for those burdened with college debt. But studies show teens now maintain connectivity through the internet, not though cars, and teen driving rates have been in steady decline since the late seventies. So young people’s lack of interest in driving may presage a more fundamental shift in how we connect with other people, where we choose to live and work, and how we construct our identities. Either way, the auto industry isn’t taking any chances. Here are just a few tactics car makers are employing to take back the future.
Ratcheting up marketing to kids. Marketing cars directly to children pays off big for car companies even though they won’t be driving or buying their own for years. American children in particular hold real sway over family purchases: more than half of parents surveyed by JD Power said their children had meaningful input in choosing the family vehicle.
While Hollywood’s screenwriters, FX wizards, and product placers have contributed mightily to the idea of the automobile as the vehicle of freedom, joy, and rebellion, our literary lions have often taken a more gimlet-eyed view of car culture.
Now, as summer ends, high school and college students across the country will put the car chases and road trips of film on pause to tackle a semester’s assigned reading. Many are picking up these classics, which were remarkably prescient about the automobile’s impact on society.
Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel anticipated a nation anaesthetized by mindless media and high technology. When they meet on the rarely used sidewalk, free-spirited Clarisse explains to protagonist Guy Montag what is lost in car culture’s velocity:
“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly,” she said. “If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur! That’s a rose garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. My uncle drove slowly on a highway once. He drove forty miles an hour and they jailed him for two days.”
For Bradbury, being a pedestrian connects us to nature and to each other; the government in his cautionary tale has made it a crime because it gives citizens too much “time for crazy thoughts.”
Brave New World: Aldous Huxley feared the potential for conformity and social control presented by mass production and mass consumption, so in the dystopian World State of his 1932 novel, the people worship Henry Ford: “My Ford!” has replaced “My Lord!” and the year is 632 AF (After Ford).