Americans’ love affair with the car may be headed for divorce court, according to a survey done by the Pew Research Center. It found that the number of people who still enjoy just going for a drive has dropped from eight out of ten back in 1990 to just under seven out of ten today. Increasingly inescapable traffic – and the rudeness and/or general incompetence of other drivers – were cited as causative factors.
With more cars than licensed drivers out there – something like 200 million of them at last count – and with residents of some major urban areas like LA, Atlanta or DC spending the equivalent of almost an entire week per year stuck in traffic jams – it’s no wonder the bloom’s begun to fall off the rose a little.
People are feeling boxed in – literally.
Driving, after all, is as much about freedom of movement as it about freedom of expression – and if you can’t move, there’s not much freedom. And the expression on your face will be a grimace, not a smile of contentment. What good is a 300 horsepower sports sedan capable of 150 mph when it’s literally impossible to drive it faster than 60-ish most of the time?
It’s not mentioned in the Pew study or the news coverage of the study, but it’s an interesting (and cruel) irony that cars have never been more powerful, quicker or faster than they are today. Even middle-of-the-road family sedans like the Toyota Camry V-6 and Honda Accord can get to 60 more quickly than most of the V-8 muscle cars of the 1960s and ’70s – and have higher top speeds, too. A Prius hybrid will do 115 or so, all out – which is almost exactly as fast as my ’76 Trans-Am (with a 12 MPG 455 cubic inch V-8) was when it was new. And today’s V-8 sport coupes – models like the Mustang GT, Dodge Challenger and Chevy Camaro – can deliver what was once six-figure exotic-car performance for around $30k.
Yet as the power/capability of cars has tracked ever higher, they are more and more throttled by external realities. Endless traffic jams; Left Lane Clovers (idiot drivers who refuse to yield to faster moving – or trying to move faster – traffic) function as de facto speed limiters.
We might as well go back to Drive 55.
Before Congress finally repealed it back in 1995, the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit was the law of the land. But the upside was you could violate it with impunity, especially if you had a good radar detector, the guts to use it and an indifference to the authority of Roscoe P. Coltrane. Fast driving was very possible. It was just a matter of putting your foot down. Mostly, the highways were still wide open. Even in the DC area where I grew up. Once you got about 30 miles out, the traffic dissipated and the only limit was how far you were willing to push down the gas pedal.
Today, the 55 MPH max is history and most state highways have lawful maximums of 65, 70 or even 80 mph. But it’s getting harder and harder to actually drive that fast for any length of time. The DC Beltway, for example, slows to a crippled crawl for several hours every day. Ditto the I-95/395 corridor that runs from Richmond to Alexandria, Va.
Similar stories – and worse – can be told by the unlucky denizens of Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York and Boston.
Drivers of ancient rust-mottled Subarus jockey for position with brand-new BMWs – neither of them able to do much more than 47 mph. The minute a hole opens up and you put the pedal down, a minivan plastered with soccer ball decals and those stupid stick figure family icons appears in your path – ending the epiphany.
It’s far from fun.
After not very long, it begins to get on your nerves too. You paid all this money for a car with more built-in capability than all-out race cars had just a few decades ago – but you might as well be driving a primered and rust-pocked Ford Festiva with 257,000 miles. The sole bennie – the one usable thing you do get for your $30,000 or $50,000 (or more) that you didn’t get in a clapped-out 70-hp Festiva – is a better radio, maybe GPS and, of course, your cell phone with Bluetooth hook-up. Electronic soporifics to keep you distracted – to keep your mind off the mobile Skinner Box in which you spend 2-3 hours or more of your life each day. Two to three hours of your life going short distances, very very slowly.
Back in the ’80s, rock crooner Sammy Hagar cut his signature track, “I Can’t Drive 55” – which contained the lament, “… what used to take two hours now takes all day… it took me 16 hours to get to LA!”
Sammy may not have realized how prescient he was being – just from an entirely different angle. The Drive 55 crowd may ultimately win the battle for a slow-mo society by dint of sheer numbers. The Clovers grow more numerous each year. Eventually, an army of ants can take down even the mightiest elephant.