The Case for Dangerous Roads and Low-Tech Cars

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Man driving convertible sports car (blurred motion)
Photo: Gerard Fritz/Getty Images

John Muir published How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive in 1969. In one of the many asides that enliven the book and give it a counter-cultural feel, he wonders about the effects of some of the newfangled safety equipment, like seat belts. He writes, “If we all constantly drive as if we are strapped to the front of the car like Aztec sacrifices so we’d be the first thing hit, there would be a lot less accidents.”

Attention Assist, the latest electronic offering from Mercedes, is a sign of how far we have come from the driving culture of 1969. It is an option package that includes Brake Assist. If the car in front of you suddenly slows down, the Mercedes brakes for you. This frees you up to be somewhere else, mentally — looking at the navigation screen, maybe, or talking to your hedge fund manager. A television advertisement for Attention Assist features a chinless man with baby-like cheeks and a bewildered look on his face saying “I never saw the truck.” (The choice of “truck” over, say, “tricycle” seems wise on the part of the copy writers.) The package also includes Blind Spot Assist, so you no longer have to bother with a head check before drifting into the next lane. The basic design intention guiding Mercedes in the last ten years seems to be that its cars should offer psychic caresses to the affluent. Just sit back, relax, and think of something pleasing. The eyes take on a far-away glaze. As for other drivers, there is a certain … lack of mutuality.

More broadly, the design of automobiles has tended toward insulation, offering an ever less involving driving experience. The animating ideal seems to be that the driver should be a disembodied observer, moving through a world of objects that present themselves as though on a screen. We have throttle by wire, brake by wire, and electrical assist (versus hydraulic assist) brakes, as well as traction control and anti-lock brakes that modulate our driving inputs for us. What all this idiot-proofing and abstraction amounts to is a genuine poverty of information reaching the driver. What’s more, the information that does get through is presented in a highly mediated way, conveyed by potentiometers and silky smooth servos rather than by the seat of your pants. It is therefore highly discreet, and does not reflect fuzzy, subtle variations. Nor is it sensitive to changes that haven’t been anticipated and coded for ahead of time, for example the vibration that might arise from a brake caliper bracket that has come loose or cracked. Perhaps most troubling, the electronic mode of presentation means that information about the state of the car and of the road is competing with information from other electronic devices that may be a lot more interesting.

The wealth of information presented by an older, harder-edged, and lighter car elicits involvement; you have the palpable sense that it is your ass that is going sixty miles an hour. Such existential involvement demands and energizes attention. This is why driving a light, primitive sports car is so exhilarating. In a variation on the old funk dictum, we might say, “Involve your ass, your mind will follow.” And conversely, free your ass, your mind will wander. I suspect John Muir is right with his image of the Aztec hood ornament: having some skin in the game would seem to be an important safety variable.

As traffic engineers have discovered, our approach to driving is influenced quite a bit by the features of a road. Eric Dumbaugh, a civil and environmental engineer at Texas A&M University, says, “We assume that safety is the result of ‘forgiving’ roads. We figure straightening out streets and widening shoulders makes a road safe.” This turns out to be wrong. When roads look dangerous, people slow down and become more heedful. Consistent with this, the failure to recognize risks, and appreciate them, is found to contribute more than does divided attention to crashes among novice drivers. But there is a relation between these two: perceived risk increases conscious effort and focuses attention. As with cars, so with roads: the always-near reality of death by blunt trauma should not be made artificially remote from our consciousness.

Emily Anthes writes that among traffic engineers, “in the last decade or so, a few iconoclasts have begun making roads more hazardous — narrowing them, reducing visibility, and removing curbs, center lines, guardrails, and even traffic signs and signals. These roads, research shows, are home to significantly fewer crashes and traffic fatalities.” Reporting the findings of Dumbaugh and of Ian Lockwood, a traffic engineer in Orlando, Anthes writes that having on-street parking or bike lanes makes drivers more careful, as does having buildings that come right up to the street, as this seems to give drivers the sense that others are watching them. It is to be hoped that such a face to face environment will pull even the Mercedes driver out of the goings-on in his electronic cockpit.

The design of these shared spaces not only influences public safety, but would also seem to play a more far-reaching role in society, through the kind of moral psychology that they promote. Roads are tacitly pedagogical, as are cars. They can foster circumspection — literally looking around for others, and regarding oneself as an object for others in turn — or a collection of atomized me-worlds. In the latter case, we tend not to encounter one another unless we literally collide with them.

Excerpted from The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew B. Crawford, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.  Copyright © 2015 by Matthew B. Crawford. All rights reserved.