Contemplating America's Love Affair With The Car

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Millions of Americans are on the road today, driving home from Thanksgiving festivities. And guest host Robert Smith talks to a few of them at a welcome center off I-95 in Maryland. The topic? America's love affair with the car — despite the danger it provides. He also consults Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist and author of the new book Carjacked.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

Over the last week, NPR has been reporting a series of stories on highway safety. The good news is the number of road fatalities has dipped. The bad news:

Unidentified Man #1: The road is still a dangerous place.

Unidentified Man #2: On average, 100 people a day die in�

Unidentified Woman #1: That's a tiny fraction of the 37,000 people killed in crashes last year.

SMITH: And NPR listeners might have noticed that there is no shortage of ways that driving can kill you.

Unidentified Man #3: T-bone collisions, often at high speed�

Unidentified Man #4: Telephone poles.

MELISSA BLOCK: Distracted driving.

Unidentified Man #5: The combination of horsepower and testosterone.

Unidentified Man #6: A lot of aging drivers.

Unidentified Man #7: Boulders.

Unidentified Woman #2: Bad roads.

Unidentified Man #8: Rocks.

Unidentified Man #9: Trucks.

Unidentified Man #10: Texting has emerged as the perfect storm.

Unidentified Man #11: And there are other dangers for cars.

SMITH: You know what? I think we've got it. Anyone who's been on a highway recently, and you may be stuck in holiday traffic right this minute, you know how crazy things get on the road. But with all these scary statistics and stern warnings about safety, why do Americans still love their deadly cars so much?

This morning, I went out to a rest stop on I-95 in Maryland. Pat Smith(ph) from Richmond, Virginia, said he came close to dying just last week.

Mr. PAT SMITH: The lane in front of me was stopping. I stopped. And I told my partner that was with me to hold on and brace for impact. Thank God for anti-lock braking systems now, she was still able to steer her vehicle and go around me on the right hand side, in the emergency lane.

SMITH: Smith can talk about one close call after another, and yet he loves everything about driving: the power, the speed.

Across the parking lot, Greg Fooblas(ph) says his love affair is with the car itself, one car, his 2003 Honda Accord.

Mr. GREG FOOBLAS: It's my baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOOBLAS: It's a nice ride, smooth ride, pretty good features. I love it.

SMITH: So even if your baby is a little dangerous, even if your baby is the thing most likely to kill you, you still love her?

Mr. FOOBLAS: I still - I mean, honestly, a lot of things can kill you. I love (unintelligible). She get me where I need to go.

SMITH: But it's not like car culture doesn't have a dark side for Fooblas. His best friend died in a car accident a couple of years ago. I mean, he thinks about it, but it hasn't changed the thrill of driving.

This paradox has been studied by anthropologist Catherine Lutz. She's the co-author of the new book "Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effects on Our Lives." We drive cars, she says, as naturally as we wear clothes, and we don't think about all the consequences.

Ms. CATHERINE LUTZ (Co-Author, "Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effects on Our Lives"): That's the nature of culture, that it takes a lot for something that's become normal, that a whole culture is built around, our infrastructure, our - you know, where we choose to live. All of those choices that come before the decision to get into the car make it very difficult.

SMITH: For the book, Catherine Lutz interviewed people about what they loved and hated about the car. And one thing kept coming up: freedom. At the rest stop, I heard the same thing.

Jim Brown(ph) from Centerville, Virginia, used to be a cop. He's seen some terrible accidents and has mixed feelings about cars.

Mr. JIM BROWN: You need them, and you hate them, and you love it, everything else. It's that American independence, to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. Just think of it. Any time (unintelligible), I can get up and go anyplace I want. I could drive to Massachusetts. I could drive to Cleveland right now. I can go to Wal-Mart. I can go to a grocery store. I can sit at home, whatever I want to do.

SMITH: Even if you're not going to do those things�

Mr. BROWN: That's right.

SMITH: �having the opportunity, the freedom.

Mr. BROWN: Absolutely.

SMITH: But freedom's also the problem, isn't it? All those other drivers exercising their freedom to swerve, clog up the road, text, apply makeup in the rearview mirror. But we can't change that. So we find ways to make us feel safer.

Maybe it's a giant SUV, perhaps a Volvo with side airbags. Marlene Davis(ph) from Teaneck, New Jersey, uses an enhanced safety feature.

Ms. MARLENE DAVIS: I pray each time when I'm taking a long trip like this is, Lord, take this car, bless my driving and bless the driving of others.

SMITH: That's a lot of pressure to put on God because there are some crazy drivers out there.

Ms. DAVIS: Yes. Yes. Yes, but I think he can take care of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVIS: I think he can handle it.

SMITH: Perhaps it does come down to control. Driving is obviously dangerous. But there's a catch. We feel if we are good enough, smart enough, alert enough, then we can avoid that danger.

Pat Smith, the driver who had the close call, says he's an excellent driver. Everyone else we talked to said the same thing: I'm an excellent driver. But when I pushed Smith, he admitted that he had fallen asleep at the wheel twice and been in some harrowing accidents.

Mr. SMITH: I used to drive fast when I was a kid, and I survived all of them days, too. So I just worry about my children. I'll be on the road and hoping they don't drive fast and�

SMITH: Hoping they don't drive like you.

Mr. SMITH: Hoping they don't drive like me, right, exactly.

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