Nothing to Fear But Drivers’ Lack of Fear

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.

But who wants to see it?  Who wants to dwell on the dangers, when there seems little choice but to drive to get to shops, to work, to school?  The companies who sell us cars and insurance understand this well. A few use fear to sell coverage. (Allstate’s black-humored “Mayhem” campaign, for example, catalogs the threats posed by other vehicles, pedestrians, animals, acts of God — reinforcing fear of everything but our own behavior.) Most insurers instead facilitate our denial. In Liberty Mutual ads, F/X magic returns crushed and crumpled cars to pristine newness, intimating that the right insurance makes “accidents” go away. Nationwide uses hilarity to chase away fear; its current commercial shows a rollover as downright hysterical! Not one drop of coffee — or blood — is spilled.

The cars on the market today offer more safety equipment than ever; advances such as blind spot and pedestrian detection systems are added each model year.  While this is reason to celebrate, a car with these technologies can also make its owner feel free to drive more recklessly. Wider public perception of safety is also inflated by the automakers’ relentless advertising around these innovations, despite, as the Highway Loss Data Institute recently demonstrated, that they can take three decades to make their way across the national fleet.

Other automotive engineering efforts would seem to work against safety improvements, even setting aside — and it’s a big set-aside — distracting infotainment technologies. The car companies toil to make vehicle interiors as quiet and road conditions as unintrusive as possible. Their overriding goal: have drivers feel safe, feel in control. With excessive speed a major contributor to crashes, however, it might be better to feel potholes and thus drive more slowly, to sense our speed and take turns more cautiously.

A telling experience came for me at General Motors’ Milford Proving Grounds a few years ago. During a test drive for journalists, my turn came to try out a new crossover on a wet-slick course. I was supposed to initiate a skid, so that the automatic stability control would kick in and help right the vehicle. But I drove too slowly—I was too nervous—and the vehicle didn’t skid.  The second time, I sped up, skidded, and the ASC kicked in, proving that it was a potential lifesaver. But so was my fear.

Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former investment banker and marketing executive, is co-author, with anthropologist Catherine Lutz, of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives.

  • Andy

    The total amount of fear is the same, just that for anyone that doesn’t have it, they essentially spread it to those that do.

  • dporpentine

    As you turn off the BQE onto Prospect Expressway right now there’s a billboard for a Lexus of some sort that has a tagline that reads (I’m pretty sure): “You can’t unpull a trigger” (with “trigger” as by far the largest word on the billboard).

    What this symbolizes for me is that not only are drivers not sufficiently afraid, many (a) enjoy pretending to fearlessness and (b) enjoy inspiring fear in others.  Cyclists are an object of (b) all the time.

  • dporpentine

    And, on cue, an article to illustrate my point to a terrifying degree:

  • Joe R.

    I feel a big part of the problem is the isolation from the environment engineered into most cars these days. Driving at 50 mph on local streets feels really slow. On highways you need to run 100 mph just to feel like you’re actually going someplace. I remember back in the 1960s 70 mph on the highway felt fast, 80 mph started to feel downright dangerous. A lot of factors contributed to this-wind noise, less than perfect wheel balancing, imprecise tracking.

    The key to getting people to slow down (at least in places where they should for safety reasons) is to intrude on the isolation present in today’s cars. We really should use things like rumble strips more, perhaps in combination with narrower roads which give a greater sensation of speed. On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with speed in the right circumstances. In fact, speed=efficiency. Today’s cars driving on today’s roads are probably safer at 100 mph than cars 50 years ago were at 60 mph. What needs to be done is to save the breakneck speeds for limited access expressways, not local streets with intersections, cyclists, and pedestrians. Drivers should fear going fast on local streets. This is where most of the deadliest collisions happen, not on limited access highways.

  • Anonymous

    There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots.
    But there are no old bold pilots.

    Taking that advanced driving course is actually a good idea.

    Test pilots talk about pushing the performance envelope, but first you have to go over the limits before knowing where to stop pushing.  For cars it’s the same, push the envelope in a safe controlled place to learn what not to do, and how to fix it if you do.

    An advanced course is way more than your one time experience on the skid course.  It’s doing that and other “mistakes” over and over and being instructed on how to avoid them, and how to correct from them, even without fancy electronic controls.  It’s learning to judge how long it really takes to stop a car, how much control you do/do not have in sharp lane changes, and overall, how much 2 tons of car is a powerful and dangerous tool.  The course should also cover interacting with and responding to other traffic on the road.  Rahter than going faster, it should give you confidence of when to pull back.

    One does not become a competent bike rider simply by being able to balance the bike and not wiggling down the road.  There are many more skills needed than basic balance.
    Driving too needs practice of advanced skills, and far too many drivers never do this, thinking driving is some simple exercise, and stop learning once the license is issued.
    We agree, it’s not simple.

    If you don’t want to take the advanced driving course, another very good approach are the advanced bicycling courses offered by the League of American Bicyclists (LAB).  Bike New York can direct you to local NYC courses or LAB for instructors around the country.  The courses cover both physical bicycle operation and advanced traffic management.  Both parts will make you a better cyclist and a better driver.

  • Kevin

    Maybe in such an advanced driving course, life-like dummies, with
    artificial flesh and bone could be stood up in faux intersections. Drivers then can see what happens when they hit a person at 5, 15 and 30mph. I’d say that would be an effective teaching tool for drivers.

  • i would love to see a zero-traffic deaths policy implemented as a real goal, with all parts of society taking it very seriously as a realistic goal. it can definitely happen.

  • Anonymous

    Sometimes I feel like calling for a ban on driver’s seat seatbelts.

  • Killmoto

    All pedestrians should carry an 18″ long, 1/4″ round dowel.  Whenever a car comes to close on the streets, Whack!

    Drivers would learn to pass at a safe distance. 

    If police were to be summoned and question the pedestrian, So what?  The cop did not see the car hit your stick, so there’s nothing they can do about it. 

  • I’ve taken the Alameda County EVOC class. I wish more people would take, or even be required to have the driving skills to pass this class.  Simple things like controlling a car doing an emergency stop while going through a turn is not easy.  But it would save many many lives if people regularly practiced these skills.

    Not just anyone who is scared of cars and driving should take these kinds of courses.  Everyone should.

  • guest 13

    Do they teach you to handle your car better in those advanced skill classes? Somehow I think that might lead to people driving faster because the people will think they have more skill now. Don’t all safety features do that?

  • Thus the common joke that the ultimate safety device would be a giant metal spike in the center of every steering wheel…

  • Globally there are over one million people die in road accidents
    every year and between 20 – 40 million are injured. We need more control
    over those fools who think that it is some god given liberty of theirs
    to propel a lethal piece of machinery down a road at god only knows what
    speed with absolutely no thought about their safety or the safety of others.

    There is only one way to deal with people like this.

    Telematics is the answer read this!


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