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.