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How Quickly the Windshield Perspective Takes Hold

7:23 AM PDT on April 13, 2010

4515151706_fb048f2b22.jpgIt doesn’t take long to start thinking like a car. (Photo: Laura Conaway)

Over the weekend, I went to visit family in the high desert of
Nevada and had to spend quite a bit of time behind the wheel — there’s
simply no other way to get around. As a matter of fact, the main road
through the town I was staying in is so dangerous that I decided I had
to travel to the restaurant across the street from my hotel in the car
— with an eight-year-old in tow, the six lanes of speeding traffic were
just too unpredictable to hazard on foot.

Since I don’t usually drive, it was an opportunity to get a little
windshield perspective. And as usual, the most disturbing part was how
quickly I turned into a stressed-out driver who was focused on getting
to where I needed to go, fast. It was the nasty transformation that Tom
Vanderbilt writes about so well in Traffic.

The last hour or so in the car was particularly unpleasant, as we
were trying to make a plane and hadn’t left ourselves enough time to
drive across the sprawl of Las Vegas. I reminded myself over and over
again as we drove down the huge arterials of that city that no flight
was worth speeding for. The inconvenience of missing our connection was
obviously not worth risking a crash.

But after only two days of car dependence, I was struggling to keep
control of my emotions, and of my foot on the gas pedal. Spending your
work life thinking about how cars change your psychology doesn’t
inoculate you against the effects.

It does help, though. I drove the speed limit and refrained from
making an illegal U-turn that would have been convenient precisely
because I have been conditioned by my life as a pedestrian and biker,
and by the education I’ve gotten writing for this blog, to understand
the potential consequences of rash driving.

This morning on the Streetsblog Network, there’s a post from one of
our newer network members about what can too easily happen when people
haven’t experienced anything else but windshield perspective. Adventures of a Car-Less Valley Girl in Los Angeles writes:

What tends to anger me as much as frighten me is when I see
indicating factors that a car accident has ended on the sidewalk, not
on the road — already horrible in itself. I recently saw one of those
new bus benches — thick, ridiculously heavy beige plastic — smashed to
pieces, bent, and broken. The middle seat in particular was nowhere to
be found.…

Cars are machines. They can be efficient modes of transportation, or they can be weapons. I have a feeling that if more people really and truly realized
the power source behind the operating mechanisms (read: the general
you) we would see a sizable percentage decrease in what are considered
relatively avoidable "accidents". Let’s just face it head on: such
accidents aren’t as much a result of oversight or being in the wrong
place at the wrong time as much as they are a result of having been a
f#$!%ing jerk. The sooner it is dealt with, the sooner they can be
avoided.

By the way — we made our flight, and I managed not to drive like a
f#$!%ing jerk. But it was a little bit scary to feel how easily I could
become one.

More from around the network: Transit Miami on how the Rickenbacker Causeway is still a cyclist’s nightmare, three months after the tragic death of Christopher LeCanne. Free Public Transit reports on a successful free transit program for seniors in Australia. And Walkable Dallas-Fort Worth writes about graffitti as a livability indicator.

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