The Central Public Health Challenge of Our Times

One of the pleasures of blogging here has been the focus that this community has on issues of public health. Doing everything we can to maintain the health and well-being of populations through a shift into a different model of life is an issue that is deeply important to me - I don't always agree with everyone who writes here on these issues (and, of course, they don't always agree with each other ;-)), but I am struck with admiration of the degree of concern for the public welfare expressed by my Science Blog Colleagues.

Which is why I'm being so presumptuous (since I am a science writer, not a physician or medical researcher) as to suggest a new direction for my fellow bloggers who focus on public health issues. With any luck they will find that now that Andrew Wakefield's false claims about vaccine-autism link are thoroughly discredited (for the bazillionth time - and can I just say how pleased I am, since I personally, as the parent of a child with severe autism, would like to know what actually *does* cause autism and we're unlikely to find that out it by doing another 40 studies on a discredited line of reasoning) that they have some free time on their hands. My suggestion would be to focus on another public health crisis - arguably the biggest one we face - our dependence on cars for personal transportation.

Even before NASA released its study demonstrating that road transport was the single largest driver, in economic terms, of anthropogenic global warming, with all the public health implications that included, we knew that our current transportation paradigm, which prioritizes personal vehicles, was a major detriment to public well-being.

Worldwide, we can attribute 1.2 million deaths per year and 40 million injuries significant enough to merit a doctor visit to auto-related accidents. There are 40,000 deaths in the US alone annually that are car-related. The disability claims alone from car-related loss of work and permanent injury come in the hundreds of millions of dollars (all data from Pat Murphy's _Plan C_ 168-169 originally taken from the NTSB). Motor Vehicle accidents remain the leading cause of death in children

We also know that motor vehicles affect the public health in other respects. Besides the role of particulate emissions and pollution from road traffic in rates of asthma and lung disease and a host of other health problems, we know that motor vehicle ownership is associated with obesity and a reduction in exercise. In just one study in Colombia (where there is a meaningful population that doesn't own cars), household motor vehicle ownership was shown to be significantly correlated with male obesity

Up until now, the focus has been on reducing the severity of inevitable car crashes - on booster and car seats for children, safety belt use, new technologies for those who can afford newer vehicles. But while the impact of these changes has been significant in relationship to per capita deaths, the expansion of the population, increase in total cars owned and trips taken means that the difference between 1975, before any of the above safety measures were instituted and 2008 was quite minute. That is, all of our gains are being lost to Jevons Paradox .

A significant move towards a society with reduced auto-related mortality, illness and disability would involve getting people to get rid of their cars, to reduce overall trips taken, to travel shorter distances - ie, the famous "lifestyle changes" that are so central to almost any major health issue.

Like all lifestyle changes, this requires both conversations with those affected, and also public policy changes. This is probably a lot less fun for most of us than debating people who deny that vaccines work - most of us are implicated in the car culture ourselves. There are at least as many factors preventing people from getting rid of their cars or substantially reducing their mileage as there are getting them to make other lifestyle changes involving diet and exercise. And yet, one way we could significantly reduce illness and mortality would be to reduce car usage and ownership.

While giving up all vehicles may not be viable for people, many households could reduce the number of trips they make weekly, many households could carpool for at least some activities, or consolidate errands. Most households could incorporate more use to public transportation, bicycles or "shank's mare" (walking). Car use is in many respects an acquired behavior, like smoking. Unlike smoking, it can be necessary, but people do not always have to make life choices that maximize their car usage and needs.

As a participant in the Riot for Austerity, a program that encourages people to reduce their resource use to 1/10th of the American average, we had people in 14 nations and in every possible life situation attempt to reduce their usage, and nearly everyone - no matter what their personal situation, no matter where they lived, whether they were physically able bodied or had children, no matter how long they commuted were able to reduce vehicale usage by 25-50% - this is in the absence of public policy changes like more public transportation. Many were able to reduce their usage further still, but at a minimum, most people should be able to make some inroads in their transportation usage - one study found that more than 25% of all trips were largely discretionary
If cars were properly perceived not as a necessity and status symbol, but as a public health threat, we could begin to make significant inroads into their reduction - and to reduction of greenhouse gasses from them. Even beginning to speak as though car related pollution, disability and death were not inevitable outcomes of a lifestyle that can't be seriously reconsidered, but as though cars are a significant threat to public health begins to open up a conversation that as yet, we are simply not having.

Emissions data indicates we will have to deal with our internal combustion engine problem - if not, we get the scenarios visible in the previous post on this site. No one wants that. So we must begin to address the reality that we can't all have private cars - and that case begins from the language of the public good - and public health.


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Exactly so. Where I live several communities are fighting a highway widening using, in part, the argument about the negative health impacts of increased car emissions.

It's also a human rights issue: do those driving their cars past our houses or communities have the right to pollute our air and endanger our health? Does the state have the right to privilege individual polluters over the rights of other citizens, while expecting these same citizens to subsidize that increased pollution using public monies?

Just try convincing a state department of transportation dedicated to the poring of concrete that a train line extension would be better for all concerned!

Transit is a major reason my family lives in an urban area; it's very walkable and bike-able, and my husband commutes via public transit. But what to do about the suburbs? I commute by car to my job in a nearby suburb three days a week because there's no way to get there by public transit and it's too dangerous to bike. How to change the basic assumptions that drive our U.S., and now global, culture?

The federal government just gave Ohio a $400 million stimulus grant to restore passenger train service between the state's four largest cities Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton). While not a glamorous high-speed operation, it would put Ohio within reach of the nation's rail transport network, such as it is (and that would be especially helpful for Columbus, which, it is said, is the largest city in the industrial world without a passenger rail connection).

The opposition to this rail system is growing by leaps and bounds. The local newspaper has weighed in against it. It's too slow. Nobody will ride it. The state doesn't have the money to support operating the system. And on it goes. All of the opposition, though, boils down to a belief that private automobiles deserve to be supported, but not rail systems.

While the final decision hasn't been made yet, it's really frustrating to get this close--whoever heard of a state turning down a federal grant of this size?--and then having it turned down.

Automobiles are also responsible for many of the economic and social ills of modern life. The cost to families of buying, maintaining and insuring several cars is enormous and many teens work long hours to afford the cars that are necessary just to have some independence and a social life. I grew up in NYC and now live in a suburban/rural town. Children are trapped at home until they drive and then released rather suddenly with no supervision. We didn't have official minders but were forced to gather in public places where there were always adults. In many ways this made us safer. And the elderly and disabled were able to live independently where they could shop on foot and take public transportation for other needs.

I also remember recognizing almost everyone in a fairly dense neighborhood and being on speaking terms with many neighbors and local merchants. Here I have neighbors on the block with whom I have exchanged perhaps five words in 20 years, not out of hostility but because I never see them out of their cars. How do you establish community under these conditions?

Sadly, I don't see any solutions coming because the two biggest obstacles seem to be lack of public transportation, which isn't likely to improve under bankrupt local governments, and zoning regulations. It is impossible to retrofit our suburbs as dense, walkable communities under current laws which prescribe large lot sizes and prohibit mixed uses.

All of us who consciously limit our driving are never going to be more than a token but even if the idea spreads most of us are trapped and short of dismantling our lives cannot abandon our cars.

I'd say 50% of car trips are discretionary. We limit our van to being filled up no more than twice in one month which means we spend about $100 on fuel. We try to keep miles to 500 per month. My husband works from home and I stay home and homeschool so we are usually within our limits. My in-laws live an hour away and several trips a month take up most of our miles. We are essentially a one car family. Our extra car is maybe driven 1-2 per month. m activities outside the home and do most of my errands during scheduled activities. Our reduction stems from not being dependent upon lots of running around when gas prices skyrocket. We also are working on transitioning to electric bike use once the children are older.

James Howard Kunstler, of course, is famous for predicting the demise of automobile and jet travel for the masses within the next ten years or so. Some recent statistics indicate he may be right. 2009 was the worst year ever for the airline industry, and another spike in fuel prices similar to the one in 2008 could send many of them into bankruptcy. Last year, also, was the first year since, if I recall correctly, the 1940s that Americans scrapped more old cars than they bought new ones. That trend is likely to continue as fewer and fewer people are able to afford new cars (or get a loan to buy one).

Restoring and improving intercity passenger rail and urban/suburban public transport systems seems to be the wisest thing we can do in light of these developments. It's entirely possible that we won't do that; we'll try to hang onto "happy motoring" as long as we can. When it's over, then, we may well no longer have a viable way to travel long distances in our huge nation.

Our politicians, of course, act totally oblivious to this possibility. Nobody talks about it.

For me, living in a potentially disaster-prone urban area, what will always keep me from giving up my car altogether is knowing what the Empire does to non-car owners during crises. It was bad enough that no provision was made to help non-drivers evacuate before Hurricane Katrina, but worse that afterwards, those on foot could either be forced at gunpoint back into the disaster area (which was a war crime when done in Falluja, BTW) or forced at gunpoint to throw their pets into the gutter and get on the busses. As someone who would either die or kill, without hesitation, to protect my cat, so long as this political system endures I will not voluntarily put her at similar risk by not having a car. Yes, I admit that I'm taking advantage of relative privilege to insulate my own loved ones from violence - I am well aware that not everyone can afford a car. And if we ever wind up fleeing after a catastrophe, we'll pick up everyone walking with a pet carrier that we can stuff into our car.

Your preaching to the choir. North Carolina also received a substantial grant to put in a rail line from Raleigh to Charlotte. I would love to take public transportation, but the only option is a bus and that would take more than twice as long as driving. Over the years there has been talk of putting in a light rail line on existing tracks, but people say it costs too much and no one would use it.

The whole problem is the design of our cities, currently they are designed for cars, everything else is an afterthought. Cities need to be designed first for walking, then biking, then public transportation, and lastly the personal automobile. Even if you started all new construction with this in mind it would take decades to change the current designs and infrastructure to really make a difference.


In Illinois, the sentiment seems to be in favor of increased rail options, especially high-speed. Many are complaining we didn't get more funds--perhaps Ohio could spare us some of theirs? ;-)

Of course we are also the broke-est state after CA, so Metra and the CTA are in a fix.

So if people are scrapping old cars and not taking planes, that's ok, in light of the new statistics about transportation contributing most to greenhouse gas emissions? Sort of forced lifestyle changes leading to a positive emissions outcome vis a vis global warming?

I'm writing a little tongue in cheek here, but do agree that higher costs will sometimes cause lifestyle changes (though maybe not values changes) faster than all our preaching about the need for less car travel. People will mourn the end of the auto age.

Like Kunstler, one worries about those folks trapped in sub-divisions, bedroom communities, exurbs and so on.

(Though since my urban lot is too small for me to do everything I'd like garden-wise, I think of those big suburban lots with envy. What riches so many of those folks are wasting in their pursuit of the perfect lawn. As petro-chemical gardening aids become more expensive, the "perfect" lawn may go the way of owning three or four cars "just 'cuz.") Vegetables and chickens forever!

Maybe expensive gas will help foster re-localization in a way that trying to convince people won't. One would think zoning laws would fall to necessity.

The most risky thing I do is drive a car or ride in one, which matters a lot because I and my DH do not have health insurance. We can, and will if need be, choose not to treat a disease with an expensive option. But if we are in a car accident and lose consciousness, it would be very likely that we'd be taken to a hospital and every attempt made to keep us alive. We could end up broke and sucking up public money besides, not something we want to do.

If mandatory health insurance passes, ironically enough, we'll be forced to go car-free to pay the penalty for not getting the insurance. That would be better for everyone, as Sharon points out, ourselves included. Since we live in a near suburb of a sprawled-out urban area with a not-very-good public transport system, we've chosen to own one car which is shared among three adults, my DH's mother included. I'd love to see our area have a better public transport system; just increasing the frequency of buses on the current routes would be a big help (those nearest us run once an hour). The we might be able to drop car use to only taking my DH's mom where she needs to go. But we are stuck living in a state (Missouri) that no longer funds public transport, so we are dependent on local and federal funding for our public transport system. The feds won't cough up for improvements unless we get a local match, and St. Louis County voters wouldn't pass a sales tax increase for Metro, our system, in November 2008. In March 2009 the public transport system had to drop quite a few routes for lack of funding. The state took some pity on us (why, I don't know) and designated some stimulus funding to Metro, allowing Metro to return service to some of those routes last September. But that funding runs out in a few months. Another sales tax increase is on the April election ballot, but I don't think it's likely to pass. I agree that we need public policy changes; I just don't know where they are going to come from, given the above and Missouri's state budget crunch.

And dewey, unless you've moved, what disasters are you thinking of? Tornadoes are small; they wouldn't turn most of St. Louis into New Orleans, just small parts of it. A magnitude 7-8 earthquake would, but last I heard (within the past year or two), the latest thinking is that such is not expected for several hundred years on the New Madrid fault. The occasional magnitude 3-5 quake we get is an aftershock from the 1811-1812 quakes, or so claims this latest theory. And if we did get that bad a quake, the river bridges will collapse and nobody will get out anyway. At least that's my thinking. But I might be wrong. Feel free to disagree with me ;).

There's only one major route out of St. Louis that does not involve a bridge (Manchester - so don't share that with too many people ;-) ) You never really know with earthquake prediction, I think. Then there are tornadoes, and of course the ever-popular nuclear war. For most time-limited events that might cause disruption of services and/or civil unrest (say, flooding like that in 1993, which I understand cut off many roads in the area), I would much prefer to hole up at home and keep my head down until it was over. But I'm not willing to give up the ability to leave, or run the risk of being treated as livestock when the National Guard moves in. I would find both infinitely more bearable if I did not have a dependent (i.e., the World's Best Cat) to worry about.

I bet a lot of parents feel the same - no, nobody was forced to throw their kids away, but those who owned cars were able to get their kids away from Katrina in time, while other people's kids were left to suffer. It's certainly incumbent on the privileged to work towards a more just and humane system, where everyone is protected as well as possible - but so long as no such system exists, it's hard to expect people to voluntarily add their own families to the class of the very vulnerable. Voluntarily doing without a car in New Orleans would be somewhat like sending your child to a dangerous and failing public school even though you can afford better; how many parents actually choose to do that?

In retrospect the US really hurt itself when it dismantled much of its own public transportation system in the mid 20th century because roads and cars seemed like a better choice at the time.

It was political, Paul, like such things usually work. The auto companies (and the road construction and trucking companies) had a lot of money and therefore a lot of political clout. The trolley and interurban operators didn't. Even though the trolley rides were popular, they got pushed out by the guys with the big bankrolls.

Roads and cars were made to seem like better choices. It's like the myth that having cars equals freedom. That notion is a product of auto industry advertising.

I'm a student teacher in High School now, and Channel One (the TV show most high schoolers get DURING school, which is about as mainstream as news can get) had a story about the decline in 16 year olds getting driver's liscences, today Mar 2.
Here's the blurb.


That's the beginning of a change in culture, and the high-ups in the mainstream are probably already aware of it.

The change in culture I look for is when employers refuse to hire anyone living more than a couple miles from work, and people refusing to take jobs that require driving (or mass transit). Or if mass transit is functional, at least to live within 1.5 miles of most necessary stores - hardware, garden supplies, grocery, and second hand clothes.

And I like Seth Godin's suggestion last year - instead of wasting money and resources on cars plugged into coal fired power plants (like the one my friend is helping to build this winter, up north) - what about replacement, efficient engines for existing older cars? Why scrap the car when a more efficient engine or engine/transmission could double mileage or more?

Sharon is not the first to make the connection between the now almost global car culture and huge public health and environmental costs, but in her indomitable style she says it succinctly and she says it well. A more academic piece with the same thoughts quantified was published a few months ago in the much regarded medical journal The Lancet by A. Haines, A. McMichael, K. Smith, et al., "Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions: overview and implications for policy makers," The Lancet, Volume 374, Issue 9707, Pages 2104-2114.

Public health was late to the party, but once we get going we know we can change the world - because we already have.

Neither of my two children (daughter in college age 20, son a junior in high school age 17) drive. And there are no plans for them to learn either.

Our daughter is majoring in math, and plans to become a math professor or teacher. Our son likes chemistry.

They are planning for an adulthood living in walkable neighborhoods, and riding public transit as necessary.

Thing is, I know they are not alone in building a life largely car free.

There is hope for the planet.

Living in Midwest suburban Kansas City is the pits! Not a bus or even a taxi to where I live - unless I want to go to the airport that's 50 miles away.

Several years ago, I was in an accident that rendered me unable to drive because I couldn't use my arm - and I found out that I couldn't walk anywhere meaningful without jaywalking (illegally crossing streets); very frustrating!

Sharon - you're right - America needs to change how we live so that driving a vehicle is left to people doing it to move other people/products.

The reason that almost nobody makes these life style changes is because the value gained in the tradeoff is generally at least an order of magnitude smaller than the value lost. If the externalities were internalized this would still probably be the case. (I'm pleased to note that it is very unlikely we won't be able to come up with some sort of technological fix that will prevent really nasty consequences from global warming, and regarding the small residual risk, perhaps we should seek to remove it if we are properly internalizing, but the reason people drive, despite knowing that it is dangerous, is because they think it is worth it).

People also talk about Jevon's paradox as though it is a bad thing. If you can drive more without changing your risk of death, or are able to drive with the same risk of death while devoting less cognitive resources to the process you are better off, even though your mortality risk is the exact same.

Yes changing the structure of our society so that you can do more without cars would mean that the costs of using less trips would be smaller. But you know, the costs of reorganizing society in that direction are huge, and there are still major advantages to a car oriented society.

Also regarding the smoking analogy, it is almost never noted, but a truism if your focus is actually on improving lives, that a far better solution to smoking than eliminating the behavior would be eliminating the negative side effects of the behavior (including of course the lack of control fostered by addiction, that is a negative). The situation is the same with cars. Figure out how to get lots of trips safely and with minimal pollution, not how to stop the trips.

By Timothy Underwood (not verified) on 03 Mar 2010 #permalink

I think the claim that the benefits outweigh the risks by an order of magnitude needs some scrutiny - most people don't describe the time they spend commuting as pleasurable, for example.

As for the idea that we can make as many trips with less impact - we simply can't reduce the impact on the scale that would be required to deal with climate change - there is no known means that could be implemented in time. Conservation and reduction are the fundamental available choices.


Timothy, I don't think you can assume that people are making a choice that includes all the consequences when they decide it is worth it to drive. Lynn Sloman, in her book Carsick describes how the benefits of driving go to me, now, and the consequences go to me and others, now and in the future. People are probably thinking only of the me, now part of the equation when making the choice, not their own future consequences, yet alone the future consequences to others. People aren't very good at valuing the future. I don't think that people are rationally deciding that it is worth it to be clinically obese with breathing problems living in a non-community in the future, in order to drive today. Furthermore, by now it's so culturally ingrained that most people are probably not making a deliberate decision at all.

@John Andersen #16: advise your kids to move to Europe, because in the U.S. there are precious few places where you can plan "for an adulthood living in walkable neighborhoods, and riding public transit as necessary" WITHOUT also having a driver's license and driving at least part of the time. I lived in Germany for the better part of a year without a car and it was a relatively pleasant and easy lifestyle. The same thing would be impossible where I live now. I might be able to walk or take public transport to do grocery shopping and acquire some other basic necessities of life. I can walk to my dentist. But not my doctor. There is public transport - but it takes several hours to accomplish what is a 15 minute car trip.

We are actually in a place where, compared to many U.S. citizens, we could access many needs and wants by walking or public transport as we so chose and desired - it is easy to get downtown, and there is so much available there. (But of course, all that is available to me because it is all, most of it, trucked in to the city...on roads...) But my husband can't walk or take public transport to his job. There was nowhere we could choose to live where he could have walked or taken public transport to his job, AND we could have had easy access to downtown, walking distance to any stores, etc. Because of course, the jobs are all out in the outer suburb rings, far away from everything, in some office park you drive to and park in a parking lot right in front of the office building.

When I worked at a university, I lived in a house that was walking distance to my job. It was a beautiful little walk, too, about 15-20 min. I couldn't walk to the grocery store, however. It was relegated to a shopping plaza on the far outskirts of town - someplace you drove to. And even walking to work became a non-option in August, when the heat hit triple digits and stayed there. A 15-20 minute walk in 105 degree weather with high humidity at 5 pm after a long day at work was more than most of us could take.

The non-car lifestyle sounds beautiful (and having lived it in a country that was designed for it, I can say I enjoyed it - it is nice to be free of having to care for and maintain a vehicle). But without a complete and massive overhaul of our infrastructure, design and layout of living/working spaces and cities & suburbs, and our philosophy about how much time we ought to be devoting to being on the job and what we ought to be spending our leisure dollars on (stuff? or doing things and spending time with others?), and, finally, sending a text message to Car and telling him "I cant c u anymore yr no good 4 me", the bad relationship is likely to continue.

It's not that people aren't making a deliberate decision between what's good or bad for them now vs. later. It's that they have nowhere else to go.

Zuska, I think you are right to an extent, but I also think that without a perfect overhaul of all systems, it would be possible to drop a significant portion of our trips. We know that more than 25% are discretionary. We know that when oil prices rise, people are able to shift many behaviors because they do - not happily, but they do. But we also have a lot of easy access solutions out there - for example, every town in the US essentially has a bus system - and the buses. But they run only twice a day to take students to school. There is no reason (and there are some pilot programs here) that school buses couldn't provide public transport for many communities. Add in programs like zipcar, and things like the smart jitney ridesharing model, and you might not make cars magically disappear, but you could certainly make the number of trips drop like a stone. I think your observations are true, but the "perfect as enemy of the good" problem can make it seem like unless we can all do everything without cars, we can't do anything.


Sharon, I absolutely agree with you about the perfect as enemy of the good business. Philly has Philly Carshare, which has been a wildly successful program. I'd personally love to see it expanded to the suburbs - if there were something like that available, we could likely afford to jettison the decaying Beetle that I currently depend upon - I wouldn't need it even when Mr. Z is gone on several-day-long business trips. Wiser use of school buses would have made my mother's life a lot easier and pleasant during the years she still lived at home in her tiny town.

It just seems a tad unrealistic, even at this late date in the peak oil scenario, to encourage your kids in a fantasy of not needing to know how to drive. This limits where you can live and what jobs you can accept in a seriously huge way, which is maybe a good thing overall for society - maybe it's the only way change can come. But it is not a good strategy for individual survival, especially in a limited and struggling economy where jobs are scarce and competition fierce. Just as I don't think achieving gender equality depends upon my personal decision as to whether, say, I choose to wear makeup or not - but whether we as a society work together to free women from situations where they don't have much choice in the matter - so I don't think it makes much difference whether my niece burns her driver's license in protest. Especially if no one sees her from behind their steering wheels at 65 mph on the expressway.

I know you are all about building community and nurturing collective action. It is part of what interests me so much in your writing - it isn't just about how to go home and build your own personal compound to survive the zombie apocalypse which is, after all, pretty much unsurvivable in many aspects. I appreciate that you generally see a wide context and inter-relationship of many factors.

I'm not saying personal choice is completely irrelevant - I recycle, I turn down my thermostat, I try to use less stuff, tread more lightly, even as my Philly "neighbor" tore down a historic architecturally significant 12000 sq ft mansion to build a 16000 sq ft mansion in its place, and it sure ain't a "green" mansion, making me wonder what's the point of all my personal efforts. Yet every bit of recycling I do is that much less in the landfill, and it makes me feel better, so there's that. It just isn't going to save the planet.

Nor is John Andersen's kids not driving, which is what originally cracked me up. I mean, that's sweet and all, but really, them not driving is not "hope for the planet". Hope for the planet would be some serious legislation with real bite in it about vehicle gas mileage requirements, and funding for public transport, and support for carshare programs, and for building bike lanes and bike paths, and new stores not being built out in the middle of freaking nowhere surrounded by acres of asphalt, but maybe someplace where people could actually get to them easily by walking or biking. Well, and of course a garden in everyone's yard, right?!?! And a magic deer fence for me, while we're dreaming....

Believe it or not I kind of agree with Zuska.

Without political impetus to accommodate those who want to do more with less it quickly becomes futile and frustrating. I'm lucky to meet her earlier description of close to campus living and am within walking of just about everything.

I haven't driven this week because the weather has been nice enough for the 20 min. walk to work. The Bride and I drive so sparingly that is a shock when we realize the needle is on empty and this is by design. The nature of her practice will occasionally take The Bride to some far flung courthouse but it is usually on a noble child associated rescue mission.

That being said, pride in not being able to operate a car is not admirable.

Claimed activism by willful ignorance isn't really activism is it? Have we become that silly? I picture a skyward thrusted blue nose muttering from a jutting jaw.."I don't even know where my thermostat is."

By the time I was 14 I could drive a car tractor, forklift and backhoe. I could ride a bicycle, motorcycle, horse or mule and fly a Cessna.

This interest in learning how things work has nothing to do with being some kind of part-of-the-problem petro vampire, it has to do with the intellectual curiosity that covers your butt and why my mother followed the Plumbers/H and A guys/auto mechanics around holding a flashlight making them explain everything they were doing to both of us.

When stuff goes haywire and trust me stuff always goes haywire, somebody has to grab the wheel. The idea of relying on 'somebody else' to do something is the equivalent of waiting for government and or easter bunny to save you.

When your non-driving kids run into problems you had better hope I'm the guy in the next seat on the airplane or The Bride is toodling by in a Roberto Cavalli power suit 'cause she's not just sartorially stunning...she's A.S.A. certified.

P.S. The way I got her to take the engagement ring was by putting it in an 85 piece Stanley socket set.

P.P.S. This post sounds meaner than I intended it to be but you don't know how much I worry about my wife's safety (despite the snub 38 in her shoulder holster) when she is constantly stopping to rescue some yahoo who couldn't be bothered to figure out how their car works.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 10 Mar 2010 #permalink

Er, do you think if there is a problem on an airplane there is any chance that J. Random Citizen who knows how to operate a car will be able to step forward and save the day?

Given the dominance of auto travel in the U.S., it's wise to know how to drive even if you choose not to own a car; not knowing how is not a character defect, but it's nothing to brag about either. Knowing how to fly a Cessna is different, as both the acquisition and practice of the skill are restricted to the relatively well-off, most of whom use it for pleasure rather than out of necessity. I would object to your characterization of these skills in particular as representing "intellectual curiosity that covers your butt," as if people who have chosen to acquire different skill sets lack intellectual curiosity or the ability to cover their own butts.

Well, since I didn't learn to drive until I was nearly 30 (lived in the greater Boston area, mostly in outer suburbs and small outer cities, but sometimes in the main, lived with a parent who didn't own a car and took three buses to work), I don't necessarily think it is a moral decision, but I do think there's something useful about not knowing how to drive - it radically reduces the temptation to drive. Living in outer areas with fairly marginal public transport was something I could navigate because I didn't have the back-assumption that car was an option. And I didn't have the presumption that one was a necessity, either, which means I saved a decade of car expenses. Again, I don't call that hope for the planet, nor am I suggesting everyone can do it. But I do think that challenging the idea that we all need a driver's license is a good thing. There are a lot of places you can live and not own a car - depending on what you are willing to do and how able you are to pay that price - including many places where one would assume that everyone needs to own a car.

I live in a very rural area, with no public transport, and we own one vehicle. Several of my neighbors own none, becaue they are either too poor to own them or they have the unfortunate habit of driving with Bud 40s in their car, and they rely on neighbors, carpooling, etc... This is not easy or convenient - but we do what we can to make it possible for them. In previous years, we've shared a car with neighbors. My husband carpools regularly. We pay the price - we lose some time and some convenience.

Again, I don't see it as necessarily a "hope for the planet magic" but I do think it is useful to offer up a visual model of a life without a car. Learning to drive isn't rocket science - if they need to, like me, they could learn. It doesn't necessarily mean they will starve in the streets ;-). But every year you don't get your license also reduces the number of car accidents, since younger drivers drive more riskily, and every year you don't have a car loan and gas costs is good for you. IMHO, it falls in the category of "worth considering" even if once in a while people overstate its value.


Sharon: "I do think there's something useful about not knowing how to drive - it radically reduces the temptation to drive."

Precisely! This is one of the reasons why I never learned how to drive. (Cost and a general distaste for cars are the other reasons.) If you don't know how to drive, you'll try harder to make it possible for yourself to get around without a car. You'll think harder about where you choose to live, and you'll try harder to make optimal use of what public transportation is available to you.

My plan is to try very hard never to need to drive. If I find myself in a situation where not knowing how to drive is making my life a complete and utter misery, well then, I'll learn how to drive then. But hopefully that won't be necessary.

And of course, this discussion makes sense only in the context of the next decade, maybe (maybe!) two. Beyond that, driving is likely to be unaffordable for a great majority of people, whether or not they ever got a license.