Murder Machines: A reflection on driving
Enuja, Inkscape
I really enjoyed my Florida vacation this spring: it was nice to feel nostalgic for Florida, to see family, and, especially, to get out of Florida before March ended. It was almost too hot for me, already, in late March. But, as with my Florida vacation three years ago, I did a lot of driving. That's because, in order to behave as a functional and autonomous adult, in very nearly every neighborhood in Florida, and certainly moving between them, one needs to drive their own personal vehicle. And I hate that.

Three years ago it really struck me how much it is true that you need a car in Florida. This time, I already knew that. So what struck me was how fatal vehicles are when they strike things. I had a safe and generally drama-free driving experience in Florida, although the construction on I-4 in Orlando as night fell was a bit harrowing. But the simple reality that, as my twin once memorably put it, F = m * v SQUARED, was very much in my mind as I was personally controlling a vehicle casually and routinely traveling at 70 miles per hour. When it had been over a year and a half since I had been behind the wheel of a vehicle, and three years since I did any substantial driving.

I discussed this with just about everyone I came upon on my vacation, and my father argued that humans are quite up to the task of not killing each other as we drive in cars. It does seem a miracle, but our general individual self preservation, and our ability to learn to calculate relative speeds and distances, means that fatal accidents are comparatively rare. Of course, as we were having this conversation, a terrorist had recently killed people by driving a vehicle on a sidewalk. Terrifyingly, terrorists have figured out that vehicles are very effective, very legal, and very accessible murder machines.

Even without terrorists, a truly enormous number of people die in vehicle accidents every year. I know that cars are not the only vehicles that kill people, and, although I have not been involved in a fatal car accident, I was once on a train that killed a pedestrian (at an at-grade street crossing). Well-functioning transit systems have many people on a train, so it is possible that more individuals have experienced being on a train that killed a person than being in a car that killed a person, but it remains true that per individual mile traveled, mass transit in general, and grade separated transit in particular, are much less fatal than individual car travel.

On my last Florida vacation, I was deeply disappointed to realize that I had driven for at least half an hour every single day. On this vacation, I did not rent a car until I had already been in Florida for 4 days, so I did not drive every single day, but, given that my parents live over 200 miles from each other, I did do a fair amount of driving, and it occurred to me that driving is quite a bit of labor. Labor that we often compensate professionals for, but unpaid labor in many situations, nonetheless. There is a strong American ideal that having your own car and driving it is a fantastic form of freedom. To me, driving is simply the freedom to do uncompensated labor, and waste precious time, without even getting exercise out of the ordeal (unlike walking and biking), but I understand how being able to go where you want to go, whenever you want to go there, can feel like freedom. The freedom to laboriously drive murder machines around on vast expanses of taxpayer funded asphalt, but freedom nonetheless.
Don’t get me wrong: I have felt great joy in the act of driving. Had I different morals (or the same morals, but an urge to be deliciously evil), I can imagine myself getting into racing cars, or otherwise fetishizing and enjoying individual internal combustion transportation machines. But using a non-renewable resource, contributing greatly to climate change, and supporting the expensive and resource intensive infrastructure required for cars is really, really, not my thing. Of course, the technology for electrical cars is currently becoming mainstream, and that helps. (Also, with an ordinary rental car, I was getting at least 40 miles to the gallon, and at one point the car claimed I was getting 44mpg. Fuel economy matters.) It doesn’t get rid of the resource intensive road requirements, but it makes the impact less extreme.

I have historically been skeptical of self-driving vehicles. I’ve thought that they could be very bad or very good for society and infrastructure, depending on the laws and systems that they are built around, and I was pessimistic about the laws and system the US would be likely to adopt. But, thinking about how effective human driven cars are as murder machines, I am now all in favor of self driving vehicles. As my sister argued, since we’ve already had driverless train cars for decades, driverless busses for public transit are very likely the first large scale application for self driving vehicles. And anything that makes public transit (or mass transit in general) cheaper and more effective is a good thing, from my perspective. Giving autonomy to the young and the old and the otherwise unable to drive is extremely important, from both a social justice and societal function perspectives. I am really adamant that we’ve got to be extremely careful with the rules we make for self driving cars: having them use driving around, empty, on public roads as vehicle storage would be terrible, and incentivizing more individual vehicular ownership would also be terrible, but I think there are ways that self driving cars can lead to fewer vehicles in circulation, less ownership, and, crucially, less murder.

I have often been mystified at people who morally condemn much of the behavior around them, including much of their own behavior. But, on this particular vacation, as I flew across the country, basked the glow of streetlights from the air (despite personally despising light pollution), and considered it personally worthwhile to drive hundreds of miles, I morally condemned my own behavior, while enjoying it. To conclude: Death to Murder Machines! Also, does anyone want to go on a roadtrip with me? I'm game.


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