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Driving as Metaphor
Where I live, there is always someone driving slowly on the road ahead. This is in the countryside by the sea and the roads are narrow and burrow-like, with high hedges either side to protect the fields from the coastal winds. The roads are digressive in character, rarely travelling directly to a specific location. They branch across the flat fields like veins. It is hard to see what’s coming, and since there aren’t many vantage points it’s easy to get lost. Still, it’s nothing that requires excessive caution. There’s no particular reason for alarm, in fact quite the reverse. Yet people drive at fifteen, twenty, thirty miles an hour. No matter how many of them you get past, there’s always another one around the next bend.
A large proportion of these drivers are elderly: their cars are often immaculate and new. At certain seasons there are also many tourists, attempting to manoeuvre their caravans and motorhomes along the winding narrow lanes. There are farms here, and so it is sometimes tractors that block the road, their big churning wheels flinging clods of mud behind them that spatter across your windscreen or land thudding on the car roof. There are stretches where the road briefly straightens so that you can see far enough to overtake. People in big, powerful cars do this boldly and calmly and as though insensible to risk. Others hesitate and miss their chance. But no matter how many times you overtake, within a few minutes you will be stuck behind someone else.
This is a rural area, a backwater, and so it could be assumed that people here are rarely in much of a hurry. Alternatively, it could be said that the relative isolation of our lives can make us less aware of others and of the spaces we share. The coast road is the local thoroughfare: it is usually necessary to take it, to get nearly anywhere you might need to go. It passes through numerous villages whose architecture of narrow bridges and constricted high streets, though scenic, presents many obstacles to the flow of traffic. Problems are constantly arising, and though it could not be said to be the fault of these quaint places, they take on something of the character of an obstacle course when large numbers of vehicles are trying to pass through them. The houses and cottages here are old and have remained the same size, while the vehicles that pass them have become larger: sometimes the cars are no more than two or three feet from their windows. When the traffic is at a standstill, some of the smaller cottages look dwarfed by the cars. It is possible for the people in the cottages and the cars to look at one another.
Several times a day the road through a village will be backed up both ways with stationary traffic, so that it can seem as though there is some calamity or attraction there. Yet it is only the spectacle of people trying to do what they want where it is impossible, for the reason that the vehicles are much bigger and more unwieldy than the humans inside them. At the centre of the jam you will often find, for instance, a giant motorhome and a delivery lorry face to face, unable to get past one another on the narrow village street. This situation can sometimes have no solution other than for one whole line of cars to reverse out of the village to allow the other to pass. If there is no one available to suggest and oversee this operation, the impasse can last a long time. But usually someone assumes the position of authority. Trying to unravel these snarl-ups, it often becomes clear that many of its participants are unable fully to manoeuvre and control the cars they are driving. Others struggle to adapt to the change of circumstance and to the necessity for acting as a group. Passing such a situation on foot, the sight of the rows of human faces trapped behind and framed by their windscreens can be especially striking, as though a portrait-painter had drawn them.
On the open road, the slow drivers often fail effectively to communicate their intentions and aims. They will brake for no perceptible reason on a straight and empty stretch, or lose speed until they come inexplicably to a halt, presumably unaware that there is anyone behind them. If they signal, they do it too late in the build-up to an action; often it is a case of working out what they are doing or mean to do by reading their driving behaviour. A person who slows down at every junction or side road, for example, can be guessed to be looking for a turning but unsure of where it is. Others will brake suddenly when they pass a pub or a shop, evidently considering going in. The usual autonomy and separation of the car, its hermeticism, is reversed: the responsibility of driving, its visual and mental burden, is passed to those outside it. This being a backwater, as well as a place for holidaymakers, it may be the case that people feel entitled to shed that burden here. In this remote place the distinction between private and public worlds is less clear; the contract of the road, its status as a sphere of regulation by agreement, breaks down. Yet there are others for whom this suggestion of lawlessness is the catalyst for signalling their intentions too zealously. They drive as it were sanctimoniously, as though to teach the rest of us a lesson. If they are going to make a right turn, they do it with a great fanfare of long-drawn-out indicating and braking. They obey the rules of the road so deliberately and self-consciously that their behaviour becomes distracting, like actors threatening the integrity of a crowd scene by continually drawing attention to themselves and to the role they are being expected to play. It is as though, for them, the road is not a shared reality but a kind of fiction, an opportunity to become visible through disguise.
* * *
I have often heard it suggested that elderly citizens should not drive, and that is certainly a consideration where I live. A few years ago a woman of ninety-four killed a girl of ten at a pedestrian crossing. There have doubtless been a number of such incidents, but this one has stayed in my mind. One reason, I suppose, has to do with narrative, with the fact that the meaning of this woman’s life was entirely altered by a single event at its end: this is not how stories generally work. Since she had already lived an unusually long life I wondered whether the woman wished she had died before killing the girl, but the question of who is responsible in that situation appears somewhat opaque. One might see the car as a weapon lawfully placed in the driver’s hands, in which case a woman of that age ought perhaps to have decided not to drive it; or one might see the laws that leave that decision to her as murderous. The car itself could be viewed as the murderer, since its capacity for destruction is so tenuously linked to that of the person driving it.
The reason most often given by the elderly for continuing to drive is the wish to retain their independence. Without a car, in other words, they would become subject to and entrapped by the reality of their own lives. There are many others for whom this is also the case, people whose arrangements – whether through force of circumstance or as a result of the choices they’ve made – would be made untenable by having no car. This is a rural area where few services are reachable on foot, so most of the people who live here fall into that category. To have no car, around here, is to be the victim of circumstance.
Several years ago, as the mother of small children and in a different place, I attempted to live without using a car, an undertaking which made every action more effortful in what was already an effortful phase of life. I was not, obviously, trying to make things easier for myself: I was acting as I did out of principle. Something in my situation had made cars unappealing to me. Nearly everything I had to do would have been simplified by using a car, and I believe I saw in this fact a kind of death, as though by taking the easy way out I would miss the opportunity to learn the truth about my situation. Other people were often appalled by this decision and treated its consequences with mockery or anger. There was also a small number of parents who had made the same choice. It was not, largely speaking, a choice made for economic reasons: rather, it appeared to be an ethical response to the fact of parenthood, an attempt to take full responsibility for causing new individuals to exist. These days I often witness the sight of a man or woman on a bicycle with a child and heavy shopping strapped to the back, pedalling furiously through the rain while being overtaken by a stream of cars, or drawn up at a traffic light beside a large clean car with another parent and child sitting calmly inside. The difference between the two is striking without being immediately comprehensible. They might almost be said to represent a mutual criticism; alternatively, they could be seen as demonstrating fundamentally different attitudes to children. If it is true that the cycling parent’s behaviour signifies at least the willingness to make greater efforts on behalf of their child, from the outside it can look like the reverse.
Now that my children are grown I drive again, as though my example no longer counts for anything. I remember, from other phases of life, the feeling of freedom and well-being that came from walking or cycling where I needed to go. But around here such behaviour would be impractical: it would be the reverse of freedom, or at least it would appear that way. In the past people routinely walked long distances but now the roads are full of cars. It seems to me that if I walked instead of driving I would make contact with my younger self and with some truth I have forgotten, but to make that decision would almost be to make the fact of oneself too important.
* * *
The village where I live is on the coast road, and there is much talk among the residents about how to control the speed at which people drive through it. The slowness that frustrates and impedes us when we are trying to drive on the roads outside the village becomes immaterial from our perspective as homeowners; from this angle, it appears that people around here drive not too slowly but too fast. This might seem merely a good example of the corrosion of truth by point of view. Equally, a person travelling by bicycle feels an antipathy towards cars, yet once inside a car can immediately become irritated by cyclists, and as a pedestrian could dislike them both, sometimes all in the course of a single day. And for those interested in the facts, one aspect of the mystery is easily resolved: the local council has performed numerous speed-testing exercises on the village road and found that the majority of cars passing through are indeed driving in excess of the speed limit.
We accept that we ourselves are guilty of speeding thoughtlessly through other people’s villages but become sensitive in our own. What is harder to make sense of is our certainty that everywhere other than our own village people drive at speeds so slow they become dangerous. The speed limit inside the village is twenty miles per hour: a car travelling at thirty would be going too fast, yet on the open road thirty can be considered too slow. Is the explanation, therefore, to be found in the inflexibility of people’s speeds, their determination to travel at the same pace no matter where they are?
It is not clear to me whether the residents themselves drive too fast through the village. I have often noticed that people go in for the sermonising kind of driving when they are in the vicinity of their own house, particularly if that house is beset by traffic problems: it might be said that they have become disempowered to the degree that their individual example is the only recourse left to them. But equally there can be a feeling of entitlement, of being above the law, on one’s own terrain. It has been noted that one person often recognised driving at speed through the village is a member of the parish council, the chief advocate for the imposition of stringent speed restrictions. Where driving is concerned, there seems to be a peculiar difficulty in attaining objectivity: the personal reality of the driver is unassailable, even by his own conscious mind. At the ‘Speed Awareness Course’ that is the penalty for minor speeding offences, participants are shown a short film in which, asked to concentrate on a particular aspect of the action, they entirely fail to notice a man dressed in a gorilla suit walk across the screen waving his arms and beating his chest. The point we’re being asked to accept is that when we drive, what we see is not reality. But what, then, is it?
* * *
This is an area of abundant wildlife, and one characteristic of the roads around here is the number and variety of animals that lie crushed everywhere on the tarmac. The bloodied heaps of feathers and fur dry out and decay over time, flattened by the traffic until they become pale two-dimensional shapes that are hard to identify with what they once were. The creatures most commonly killed appear to be the larger game birds – pheasants and quail – that are forever darting out into the road in front of passing cars. The smaller native birds tend to spring away at the sounds of approach but these big ones seem to exist in a state of strange bewilderment, easily panicked and yet without the slightest idea of how to save themselves. If they are standing beside the road, the noise of a coming car will cause them to run directly in its path. The same is true of the small clumsy deer – muntjac – that were introduced to this country in the 1920s from China and have steadily multiplied. Rabbits and squirrels, though quick, are ubiquitous and without particular stratagems and are frequently flattened. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, move so slowly that the question of whether they are crushed or not presumably lies entirely in the hands of fate. Occasionally a stoat or weasel will zoom triumphantly across the road like a funny undulating moustache, too cunning to be caught. A roe deer of considerable size once lay on the verge outside the village for the many weeks it took it to decay, so that every time you passed you saw it at a new stage of this process, the sleeping form still there day after day, visible from some way off.
It is doubtless upsetting to hit a bird or animal and many people swerve to avoid them. Others don’t, either because the circumstances would make swerving dangerous or because – whether through indifference or rationality – they don’t accept that the responsibility for the situation lies in their hands. The driving scenario, in other words, does not legislate for the behaviour of animals, and so it is not the individual driver’s job to avoid them. The car itself, of course, is designed to protect the people inside it, not the objects that cross its path. The airbag that cushions the driver in the event of a collision does not have its exterior equivalent to cushion the thing being collided with. Yet in its weight and hardness, its velocity and power, the car is a more or less invincible aggressor. Nothing soft and living stands a chance against it. When cars were first invented the number of people and animals they hit was proportionately extremely high: the car was not yet a reality that could be anticipated and avoided, to the extent that early cars had to have a person walking in front of them waving a red flag. An analogy might be that if rocks suddenly began falling from the sky, many people would be hit by rocks before they developed systems and strategies to protect themselves. Yet around here at least, these systems are rudimentary compared with the cars’ own developments in speed and comfort and passenger safety.
It is often regretted that children can no longer play or move freely outside because of the dangers of traffic; inevitably, many of the people who voice these regrets are also the drivers of cars, as those same restricted children will come to be in their time. What is being mourned, it seems, is not so much the decline of an old world of freedom as the existence of comforts and conveniences the individual feels powerless to resist, and which in any case he or she could not truthfully say they wished would be abolished. There is a feeling, nonetheless, of loss, and it may be that the increasing luxury of the world inside the car is a kind of consolation for the degradation of the world outside it.
In the future, when cars can drive themselves, these feelings of self-division might decrease. The car will become not an extension of the self but its container, and since others will likewise be contained the problems of individuality may recede.
* * *
Because of family circumstances, during the past couple of years I’ve had to drive frequently to the city and back. Emerging from the countryside I am often startled by the ceaseless flow of heavy traffic. It seems incredible to me that so many people could be pursuing their private aims in this public way. But are cars people?
The spectacle of mass movement can look like something unstoppable, yet it is the easiest thing in the world to impede the flow of traffic or to bring it to a halt. On my route there are long stretches of motorway and the traffic is always thickening or lengthening as it meets and then absorbs an obstruction. It doesn’t take much for this thickening to become an actual blockage. The sense of embroilment usually comes without any knowledge of what has caused it: often the first sign of it is an increase in awareness of the individual identity of other drivers. The forward-flying host begins to be differentiated: cars that seemed anonymous and distant become closer and more familiar; a web of recognition begins to form itself. The phase of community that follows – lacking any redeeming narrative or central event – is more or less indistinguishable from mutual entrapment. In this context, the difference between a car and a person is not entirely clear. Moments earlier the car was the disguise for, and the enlargement of, the driver’s will. Shortly, when the traffic stops, it will become his burden and his prison. But during the phase of transition their mutual relationship seems more biological, a kind of linked separateness.
All sorts of things can cause the traffic to stop, an accident, a scene at the side of the road. It’s often surprising how minor these dramas are, compared to the size and extent of their consequences. Their power is cumulative; it arises from the number of people to whom the incident, however trivial, is exposed. I once talked to a man who specialised in patterns of traffic flow and he showed me a set of diagrams illustrating how the merest distraction in one place, something so small that it would cause passers-by to briefly glance at it and therefore unconsciously decrease their speed, could over time result in the whole motorway coming to a standstill in another place miles away.
The drama of the road, once you have been observing and participating in it for a number of years, can be seen to change and develop: new themes arise or die out, new narratives emerge and either progress or fade away again, certain behaviours grow widespread and occasionally take hold. In this country, for instance, the fast lane of the motorway is increasingly full of people driving slowly, while the other two lanes are often more or less empty. On a motorway, it might be said that you ought to know your place: here, increasingly, it is clear that the majority of people – wrongly or otherwise – believe that place to be the fast lane. This belief, and the behaviour that attends it, has numerous consequences, one of which is that it is now almost impossible to get quickly where you want to go. Rather than representing an opportunity for passing, the fast lane is dominated by the person going most slowly, who dictates the speed at which everything behind him is travelling.
As a result, despite the fact that the rules of the road forbid it, people here are now deciding to overtake on the inside. There is some confusion about what this practice should be called: undertaking is – it would seem – the logical formulation, despite its funereal associations. It used to be the case that only reckless or seemingly lawless drivers would undertake, but now a wide range of people can be seen doing it, to the extent that when the traffic is heavy the middle and slow lanes often move faster than the fast one. Undertaking is perceived to be cheating, but the more that people do it, the more it becomes justified as a response to the corruption – as it were – of the principle of the fast lane. The Speed Awareness Course has nothing to say about the question of driving too slowly and the particular dangers it generates, but the undermining of an orderly consensus would seem to be one of them. People decide to take things in their own hands; if there is no longer any fast lane to provide a context for their aims and abilities, they must act for themselves.
Despite the eternal nature of the driving scenario, its boundless time, the mentality of the last chance adheres to it. For example, a car will be driving along a stretch of road with nothing at all behind it and another car will pull slowly out at the last possible moment in front, having watched its approach. It is as though, by approaching, the first driver has caused the second to feel some competition for resources; or as though the second driver can only define himself and his intentions in relation to the first, whom he consequently obstructs. On motorways, often a lorry will abruptly swerve out into the fast lane to overtake another lorry, its size operating as a kind of authority. These incursions can be surprising, even frightening, because the build-up to them is usually hard to perceive. From a distance the lorries seem more or less indistinguishable from one another: their differences in speed are minimal; the reasons for one of them to overtake another are not entirely clear. The drama of this act, being slow to accrue, is therefore unexpected when it comes, but its apparent violence is quickly undermined by the bulk and slowness of the perpetrator. A long line of car drivers quickly builds up behind to watch him inching past a vehicle as slow and cumbersome as his own. When he has succeeded they hurtle by him with contempt. If the difference in speed between the two participants is sufficiently minimal the contest can take a long time and cover many miles of ground, and when this happens the overtaking driver becomes, at a certain point, an aggressor again. His lack of power is having serious consequences: angry as they might be, the cars can’t get past him. He has rendered them helpless.
It seems possible that people experience more extreme emotions when they drive, and reveal cruder prejudices, than they might otherwise be aware of or admit to. Perhaps the soldiers of the past, in their suits of armour, felt similarly disinhibited and more capable of violence. Women drivers, for instance, have been openly pilloried, and it is noticeable that even those who would not normally regard themselves as racist or xenophobic frequently describe driving in other places – Germany or Italy or the Middle East – in ways that draw upon or lampoon national characteristics. Road rage, as it is called here, is a common occurrence: people can often be seen shouting or gesticulating at one another from their cars, whereas in the street or other public places such violent outbursts and attacks are rare. Once inside a car it becomes permissible to comment on those outside it, to remark on their appearance or demeanour, with a brazenness absent from most social situations. The occupants of a moving vehicle might even feel licensed to heckle or harass those they see, yet when the car is stripped of its power – by being stopped by traffic lights, for instance, or at a standstill in a traffic jam – and those occupants are exposed, their violence and aggression can rarely be sustained. They may even be frightened of being confronted in the flesh. It has often been observed that people behave in their cars as though they cannot be seen.
Recently, stuck in a traffic jam, I saw an elderly and respectable-looking man leaping wildly and jerkily in his seat, his arms flailing, his face half-demented with anger, shouting things at other drivers that could not be heard through the glass.
* * *
Occasionally I meet a person who has never learned to drive. Sometimes he or she is a city-dweller for whom the need to learn has never arisen with sufficient force. Sometimes a lack of opportunity or privilege is the cause. There are also people who appear to have known from the beginning that driving wasn’t for them: often they are individuals society might label as sensitive or impractical or other-worldly; sometimes they are artists of one kind or another.
I myself never considered not learning to drive. Had I not learned, my life would doubtless have taken a somewhat different course: I would probably not have been able to live here on the coast, for instance. Yet I don’t remember it as having been much of a choice at the time; I don’t recall having a sense of the alternatives. But I think about it sometimes, the life I would have lived if I hadn’t learned to drive. It might be said that there would have been social and economic consequences to not driving, but for most of the non-drivers I meet that doesn’t seem to have been the case. On the contrary, their lives often seem saner and more efficient than my own, more compact, lacking the formless sprawl in personal decisions and arrangements that driving encourages. They are not always, it must be said, above accepting scraps from the driving table, allowing others to ferry them here or there if the need arises. But in the cases that I know of, they have tended to take on fewer responsibilities, to scatter and divide themselves less, to consume and be answerable for a smaller portion of our shared resources. Increasingly I regard them as a kind of elect: they appear, essentially, free. How did they know not to do it?
When I look at my history of driving, I begin to see that it has been analogous to the history of my own will, of all the things I have made happen that wouldn’t have occurred naturally on their own. I find myself wondering at the nature of the story it has made up: its relationship to the truth is opaque. My impatience with the slow drivers on these coastal roads, for instance, remains at odds with my fear of cycling on those same roads: perhaps it is myself I am afraid of. Despite my claims to equality, when my husband and I go somewhere together by car I automatically get in the passenger seat. At busy or complicated junctions I find myself becoming self-conscious and nervous about reading the situation: I worry I don’t see things the way everyone else does, a quality that otherwise might be considered a strength. Sometimes, stuck on the coast road behind the slow drivers while they decide whether or not they want to turn left, it strikes me that the true danger of driving might lie in its capacity for subjectivity, and in the weapons it puts at subjectivity’s disposal. But how can one know when the moment has arrived at which you are no longer capable of being objective?
Recently, hiring a car alone on a trip abroad, I realised that something had changed: the world no longer seemed familiar to me. I struggled to understand the car’s controls and its alien shape and size. On the motorway other drivers surged up impatiently behind me, sounding their horns. I had forgotten, it seemed, how to drive; or rather, the degree of responsibility that driving entails suddenly seemed unmanageable to me. Why was everyone else not likewise crippled by this realisation? I moved into the slow lane but lorries loomed in the rear-view mirror one after another and then overtook me, their huge forms seeming about to suck me under as they roared past. On that wide grey unfamiliar road, swept along in the anarchic tumult of speeding cars, every moment all at once seemed to contain the possibility of disaster, of killing or being killed: it was as if driving was a story I had suddenly stopped believing in, and without that belief I was being overwhelmed by the horror of reality. The river of cars plummeted on, relentless and unheeding. But the fact of myself, of my aloneness, had somehow been exposed.
Back at home, rounding a bend on one of the empty roads where I live, I came upon an overturned sports car on the verge. It was a hot summer’s day: the upside-down car had its roof down. Lying stiffly beside it amid the foaming white cow parsley were its occupants, a man and a woman, their pale legs sticking straight out in front of them, their shocked faces as rigid as dolls’ faces, their summer clothes askew. The man still had his sunglasses on; the woman’s broad-brimmed hat lay in the middle of the road. The accident could only just have happened, but no one had seen it and there was no one there.
Copyright © 2019 by Rachel Cusk