Hero (person) versus Villain (automobile)

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

The mission of this web log is to minimize driving, not eradicate it. Many people need to drive until they can experience a change-in-life circumstance, including moving or changing jobs.

But most of our commentary about automobiles is critical because of…

  1. the legislative and commercial privilege they experience,
  2. the frequent dangerous, reckless, and selfish decisions many drivers make,
  3. the effect of the internal combustion engine on the environment,
  4. the effect of big, heavy chunks of moving metal and plastic on the natural ambience of the outdoors,
  5. the automobile culture that encourages us to neglect our bodies, our neighbors, and our communities, and
  6. the thinking engendered by being enclosed in the automobile culture where speed and dominance make right (as in whateveridoisjustified).

It is this last point, the thinking, that provides the stage where the hero and the villain meet. While this will seem irrelevant, we are familiar with one defense of handguns: guns don’t kill, people do. What the statement means on a factual level is that a gun alone in a room seldom if ever has spontaneously fired and killed someone.

What the statement fails to note on a psychological level is that, for certain individuals, possessing a gun changes the way they think. They begin to imagine the advantages of using it on another human. They feel empowered. They are encouraged by this leverage that the gun will help them express grievances in ways they could not otherwise give voice to. In short, the gun kills the humanity of the person before the person kills other humans.

Similarly, a parked car in a garage does little harm (outside of all the environmental costs of manufacturing it). It is the drivers who make these vehicles so annoying, if not dangerous.

Yet, on another level, the automobiles are villainous. It is their speed, their power, and the invulnerability they offer their drivers that changes the personhood of the driver. People who outside of a car would be civil to each other, if only out of cowardice, feel empowered to do, say, and flip aggressive things once behind the wheel.

The French playwright Octave Mirbeau wrote as much, confessionally, in 1908:

When I am in the car, possessed by speed, humanitarian feelings drain away. I begin to feel obscure stirrings of hatred and an idiotic sense of pride. No longer am I a miserable specimen of humanity, but a prodigious being in whom are embodied – no, please don’t laugh – Elemental Splendor and Power. And given I am the Wind, the Storm, the Thunderbolt, imagine with what contempt I view the rest of humanity from the vantage-point of my car.[1]

The car provides for them a facade through which they can peer down on others, completely insensitive to the fragile existence they, too, would feel, if they were on foot or bike. The car is a great enabler of inhumanity.

Of course not everyone becomes, in Hamlet’s word, “worser,” for driving. Many remain conscientious, so that the only damage they do is generated by the machine itself and not by a core of inhumanity. But a minority of people (I’m hoping it’s a minority) are ill-affected. Just as one mass shooter is one too many, a hundred careless drivers during the morning commute are a hundred too many.

The person outside the car, meanwhile, is the underdog who carefully picks his or her way across the street, on the shoulder, through the parking lot, all the while preserving the environment at his or her own risk. The person is the hero of this story. The hero might die fighting, but the hero is no bully, no coward, and seldom wields a weapon, whereas I know of two situations where a driver stopped and wielded a knife to a pedestrian (me) or a biker (Robby), because, somehow, threatening us with a two-ton vehicle doesn’t seem bad enough.


[1] Quoted from Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring, by Carlton Reid, 2015, page 51.