Thursday, June 12, 2008


Apart from eight seconds in an ill-fated attempt at snowmobiling when I was about twelve (I hit a tree), I have never in my life operated a motor vehicle. Not a car, truck, van, motorcycle, all-terrain vehicle, or riding lawn motor. As my high-school friends will recall, this fact was the only potential point of personal embarrassment in what was otherwise an ideal social existence, a golden age when my green eyes, thick lustrous hair, athletic frame, and irresistible personal charisma were envied and resented by all males, but proved almost frighteningly alluring to the veritable legions of giddy and twittering females who attended my every move. But the driving thing was hard to get past. "Why doesn't he get his license?" they wondered. It only enhanced my mystique.

Actually, no. It was and sometimes remains a point of dumbfounded disbelief and even, on occasion, real irritation amongst acquaintances and some relatives and in-laws (my friends have long since stopped caring, bless them.) Among my more distant relations, especially, my refusal to get behind the wheel, coupled with my protracted schooling has, I am convinced, led them to the conclusion that I am "simple" or perhaps even a homosexual. On the plus side it has kept me from participating in that most dreary of male bonding rituals: men with beers standing around cars, admiring engines, discussing performance. (Paging Dr. Freud.)

Our society is auto-centric. We build our homes and cities on the supposition that automobile ownership is nearly universal. No invention, not even the telephone or the personal computer, has had such an enormous social and economic impact on our lives as the automobile. By choosing not to drive, I have limited my social life, my choice in accommodations, and even my career options. I have to plan my days much more carefully than people who can hop in the car and go. I cycle, I walk, I take public transportation. I accept rides as a last resort. Identification is a problem, too, since the driver's license is almost always the first kind of ID people ask for when they are required to. Nowadays I get by with my passport and health card (although not long ago a very unpleasant special-collections librarian refused me service because I couldn't provide her with a driver's license) but in my late teens and early twenties I had neither. Consequently, I never set foot in a drinking establishment in my undergraduate years, a point of embarrassment then, but, in retrospect ,a fact that saved me a lot of money, time, and probably my grade-point average as well.

My wife owns a car, but cycles religiously — in three years she has racked up only about 9,000 kilometers on the odometer — and she does the driving when we travel. I admit that this is an inequitable distribution of labour. I attempt to compensate by paying more than my share of the car-related expenditures (it works out to a quite obscene $15 per day, by the way), and I do the navigating, although last summer I experienced the sensation of technological redundancy when we borrowed a GPS for our vacation. Not only did it give better directions than me, it didn't talk back. Amanda considered it an ideal travel companion.

At a certain point — it was in my early thirties, I think — I shrugged and admitted to myself that what I have is a phobia and that it didn't really bother me. As phobias go, it's not very common, but it's not that rare, either, and there are hundreds of websites and support groups devoted to helping people afflicted by a fear of driving. Not a chance. I have to have something to make me stand out from the herd and, besides, just imagine the meetings. "Hi, I'm Graham. I'm a Motorphobe. Sorry I was late, I missed my bus." No thanks. I'd rather join the Oprah Fan Club and get in touch with my inner child.

At any rate, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Car accidents have been a fixture of modernity in Canada ever since Father George-Antoine Belcourt rolled his steam wagon at his parish's Saint Jean Baptiste Day picnic in 1866. (How fitting that the owner of Canada's first car also had its first car accident.) Father Belcourt survived, but generally speaking the butcher's bill from automobile accidents is positively staggering. In the past ten years, the number of Americans killed in car accidents was about 425,000 - more than the number of Americans who were killed in World War Two. And people make fun of my phobia. How many people get killed or maimed by chickens?

In Canada, the number of car-related deaths in the same period was 27,000 (it is a curious fact that the United States has nine times Canada's population but about fifteen times the number of automobile fatalities.) Granted, the statistics are getting better as cars get safer and as emergency medical services improve — relative to population they were about four times worse in the 1940s — but amongst teens cars are still the leading cause of death. (I actually knew someone whose father bought her a car for her 16th birthday in order to "keep her safe". On the other hand, he wouldn' t let her light the BBQ. I wonder what the stats are on teenage BBQ-related deaths.)

I don't want to create the impression that the possibility of getting killed is at the root of the issue - as a semi-frequent passenger I'm not much better off. It's more a question of finding the whole exercise far too complicated, with too many independent variables and too little margin of error. It's hard to explain, and I probably could overcome the problem if I were inclined to do so, but it's very low on my list of priorities, especially when I still haven't read Northanger Abbey.

In the last year or so, however, I've noticed that attitudes toward my choice not to drive have been changing. I get fewer furrowed brows and uncomprehending guffaws, and once, not long ago, somebody even said, "good for you." It's not hard to figure out what has brought about this transformation: gas prices are growing by leaps and bounds, and the planet is changing. I'm by no means car free, if you will (I still take buses and accept rides) but my ecological "footprint" is far smaller than most of you despoilers of the Earth. And so, my friends, when the ice caps have melted and the polar bears have drowned and the topsoil has turned to dust and you need scuba gear to visit the Guggenheim, don't come crying to me.


Graham Broad said...

The photo: I have no idea. Don't ask.

Laura Butler said...

Hey, Graham. I found your blog, and enjoy reading it. This post made me smile: I don't drive either, much to the chagrin of many people. I bike it, bus it, walk it or accept a ride now and again... but I don't currently have a license, and haven't owned a car. Of course, that also means that because I'm 22 years old, through all of undergrad, I never had valid ID, and never hit a bar. (That's okay. Most people knew I'd probably be in the library instead.)