Every day I get into my car for at least an hour a day and it terrifies me. I have the type of sensory-overload difficulties that accompany high-functioning autism, which means the noise of other vehicles revving their engines, the sensation of hurtling along at 45 miles an hour, and the trial-by-force of cautiously avoiding the mistakes of other drivers sends me into a state of anxious dread.
Vehophobia curses all of us who were born in the wrong century. We who would accept inconvenient lifestyles over a landscape dominated by strip malls are the same people who make three right turns to avoid a left turn on a busy street, we putz along at 55 miles per hour in the rightmost lane of the highway, and we don’t turn on red, even if the irate maniac behind us lays on the horn. I would be happy if the general speed limit everywhere was reduced to 30 miles per hour. In my ideal world, we would only go as fast as our feet could pedal us on our bikes and international trade would be limited to whatever could happen by train or boat.
I have never been a good driver and when I was forced to learn how to drive at 18, I got into several minor accidents in the decade that followed. I have now been accident free for over a decade, knock furiously on wood, however, this is part luck and part avoidance of being on the road. My car is 12 years old and does not yet have 60,000 miles on it.
Just move to Europe, why dontcha?
As a young adult, I saw my fear of driving as a personal failing and not the failure of my society at large to come up with better solutions than the personal automobile. As I grew older, I dealt with the issue more honestly: My decision to live near my family cost me the ability to live without a car. With the exception of large city dwellers and residents of Mackinac Island, everyone who lives in the US is forced to get in a car on an almost-daily basis. American suburbs are deliberately built to encourage driving over walking or biking, with shoddy public transportation, homes far away from business districts, and zoning laws that prevent sensible arrangements such as apartment housing above retail stores.
The arrangement that “has no future” in the wise words of James Howard Kunstler is the one in which I find myself trapped. I battled with the notion of moving to Europe in my 20s in order to have a more walkable life; with no support network and very little money, moving there would have been difficult to say the least. So I stayed put and tried mostly in vain to overcome my fear of driving.
NO, TOONCES, NO!
My nightmares are about bridges where my car veers off into the atmosphere like a scene from SNL’s vintage skit Toonces the Driving Cat. I have a recurring one where I take the wrong turn on the highway and have to face the fact I am too lost to get home…ever. I have other dreams where I bear witness to the insanity of other drivers playing Demolition Derby with their own lives as I try to circumnavigate their crashes and bloody heaps. If I became the Devil, I would make driving in cars one of the chief torments of Hell.
Nevertheless, I drive because life is complicated and sometimes you have to do stuff you hate on a daily basis just to get other things you want, like the ability to physically see my family members more than once every few years.
This brings me to the point of this essay: Not all of us are drivers, so please don’t be disappointed when we cannot drive to see you.
People who like driving (I swear this is the majority of Americans) don’t get it when I RSVP “No” to a get-together that is inaccessible via public transportation. They see it as nothing to hop in a car for two hours to travel to the distant farmlands for a recreational event that would have taken our non-driving ancestors several days. They don’t understand that the last thing I want to do at seven-thirty AM on Saturday morning is get into a car and defend myself from others who are also half-asleep and clearly don’t want to be there. If the price of the event is a potential anxiety attack caused by driving 1.5 hours to a location I’m not familiar with, the answer has to be “No.” Chances are I’m not going to be at my best, even if I do manage to get there in one piece. I don’t like showing up anywhere when I’m a nervous wreck, drained from the psycho in the white SUV who passed me and nearly took out my side door for the simple infraction of doing the speed limit in a no-passing lane.
For some of us rare birds, life spent in a car is not living. Until I can move to a place where people value places that are accessible by walking enough to mandate them as a way of life, there will be many skipped parties, marches, lunches, and fundraisers. Thanks anyway for inviting me.