Sister Sirens

Set Your Car on Fire!


Green tree shaped in human lungs. Conceptual image

My mother gave up driving fifteen years ago. She gave it up because she no longer wanted to navigate the terrible traffic congestion in the Dallas metroplex area. She got tired of red light after red light, twelve-lane freeways, and traffic drawn to a halt by accidents, and she really didn’t like drivers who sped up behind her and honked or rode her bumper. She didn’t get her driver’s license until she was twenty-five and married with three children. She was forced into the driver’s seat by necessity because my father, a customer engineer for I.B.M., traveled frequently for work. It fell to my mother to drive us to the store, to church, to the library, wherever we needed to go because, well, somebody had to do it.

Now my parents are retired, and my father drives Mom around, either him or a friend or one of my sisters or me if I’m home for a visit. Unlike Mom, I enjoy driving. I’m an expert with years of experience. If needed, I can drive one thousand miles solo in a day, the distance between Milwaukee and Dallas, which takes about sixteen hours. My interstate driving philosophy is based on my husband Jim’s simple advice, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” which I interpret to mean: Drive as fast as you want, and no faster. It’s okay to brake and fall back. Sometimes the slow lane is the right place to be. If a car is approaching in the rearview at high speed, change lanes to get out of the way, when possible. Respect other drivers by paying attention to the whole of the driving situation. Don’t carelessly clog up the road. Fill up the gas tank before you leave on a road trip. Make sure the spare tire is aired up.

I was not always an experienced driver. Nine days after I got my license (at the age of sixteen), I totaled my car, a 1971 Pontiac Ventura, orange with a white leather interior. It was a sweet car, and I was sad to see it go. Luckily, no one was hurt. It was a stupid driving mistake born of the fact that I hadn’t practiced much driving in real traffic, and I wasn’t supposed to be cruising Wesley Street, the main drag, anyway. My practice had been on country roads, generally, and I almost failed my driver’s test. I was driving in the left lane of a one-way street when the policeman giving the test requested that I make a simple right turn. He cancelled the request twice before instructing me, “Look, if you try to make a right turn out of the left lane again, I’m going to have to fail you.” I don’t know why he gave me such a broad pass. Maybe because I was excellent at parallel parking. We’d practiced parallel parking between two barrels in the school’s parking lot dozens of times during Driver’s Ed.

The accident woke me up as a driver. I became aware of the driving situation: me, as the driving subject, embedded in a field of other drivers in vehicles, in real time with road conditions, speed limits, traffic signals and signs, rules, regulations, and bylaws. Driving is an art, and there’s an unspoken etiquette, and then there are the terrors: road rage, texting, and drivers under the influence, not to mention natural disasters like rockslides and inexperienced teenagers. Driving is not environmentally friendly; cars and trucks are the number one source of air pollution in America, and also contribute to noise pollution and fuel spills. Statistically, twice as many people die in car wrecks every year as die during open heart surgery. It’s a wonder that anyone can bear to drive at all. It’s not surprising my mother gave it up.

The problem is, cars are marketed as sexy, and I’ve always romanticized the pleasures of driving. Cars stand for autonomy and freedom, even a type of heroism. Being a good driver is part of my identity. When other people compliment my driving on a road trip, I feel a glow of pride. I can drive in a rainstorm; I can drive after dark. At the same time, I know that driving a gas-powered car is damaging the planet. If I’m honest with myself, I should probably walk more often. I live most of my life in a three-mile radius. The university where I work is only a mile from my house, and there are sidewalks all the way. The grocery store and bank are even closer to my house, the post office, pharmacy, and courthouse a little further. It’s safe to say my immediate needs can all be locally met. Given the environmental consequences of gas-powered cars, I should never drive at all.

It would be a copout to say driving is a guilty pleasure. It’s more legitimate to say it’s a sovereign right when you need transportation to work to get paid and getting paid sustains daily life. When automobiles were a new idea, some males attempted to limit or prohibit female drivers in the U.S., in large part to confine women to domestic spaces. By the time Model T Fords were rolling off the assembly line, however, a woman’s right to drive in the U.S. had been established. Only a few years later, in 1920, women’s suffrage finally arrived with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

One hundred years later, women have only recently been granted their rights to vote and drive in Saudi Arabia; King Abdullah decreed that women were allowed to vote in 2015 and allowed women the right to drive 2018. Unfortunately, in spite of the relaxation of laws that restrict the sovereignty of women, King Abdullah’s regime continues to imprison and torture women’s right activists. Loujain al-Hathloul, for example, has been tortured and imprisoned since 2018 for her activism for women’s rights and the women to drive movement. She remains in prison because she refuses to sign a statement that denies the excruciating torture she has endured.

On the one hand, driving is a sovereign right to achieve economic and political equality, and on the other, it’s an environmental crime. Part of me wants to say, “You can take away my car fob when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” The other part says the convenience of driving isn’t worth destroying the planet’s air. We should be working toward the obsolescence of gas-powered vehicles, and some first steps have been taken. Electric cars are on the market. Many businesses allow telecommuting, which reduces the number of drivers on the road. Online classes cater to students from K-12 through university. Consumers can purchase just about anything online, and it’s predicted orders will someday be delivered by drones instead of parcel post. Urban centers around the world—Mexico City, Paris, Milan—have banned gas-powered cars at certain times or on certain days. Urban centers also lead in the development of reliable mass transportation.

My mother gave up driving because the traffic in and around Dallas caused her too much stress and anxiety. Driving doesn’t bother me in the same way but thinking about cars and the environment does. We need to ban gas-powered vehicles sooner rather than later. Go ahead, be part of the movement. Let’s all set our cars on fire

Categories: Sister Sirens

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