All Revved Up and No Place to Go
How the state has ruined a venerable rite of passage.
I learned to drive in the car culture of central Florida during the mid-1960s. My father, a mechanic and one-time driver of dirt-track racers, began teaching me the joys and risks of driving when I was just 14, but much of the ethos of the car culture was not taught but absorbed, in a kind of adolescent osmosis. The automobile was not merely transportation, it was moving shelter, privacy, a home away from home. It was freedom embodied. I held it as an unexamined article of faith that the liberties to which I was entitled in my home (and then some, during my teens) extended to the life I lived behind the wheel, and I have long looked forward, with some very parental ambivalence to be sure, to introducing my own children to the world of the automobile. At least I did so until very recently. Now when I construct a fantasy of how the rite of passage might proceed, it seems far from what I had once envisioned.
"Well, here we are. Your first driving lesson. Boy this brings back memories."
"Yeah? When did you learn to drive?"
"I suppose I'm still at it in some ways, but the first time my father took me out was in 1963. He sat next to me on the bench seat of his brand new fire-engine red Dodge, one of the big monsters with a 383-cubic-inch, four-barrel…"
"How many liters is that?"
"A little over six, I think, but…"
"Something like that. Anyway, he sat so that he could manipulate the pedals and I steered. After about 5 minutes or so of easy cruising he punched the accelerator to the floor and sent us careening down an old country road with the speedometer needle over 60 and climbing the last time I dared take my eyes off the road to look. At the end of an eternal minute or two he brought us to a stop and gave me a very vivid lecture about the serious side of the fun of hurling two tons of metal around at high speeds. I don't think my pulse returned to normal for a week."
"Wow! Sounds great! Let's go!"
"No, no. First there are a few things I have to tell you about. Climb on in." "Oh, okay."
"Now, in front of you is the instrument panel. You already know what most of this is, right? This is the speedometer…"
"Hey, will this old thing really go 110 miles an hour?"
"Well, no, but…"
"Why is there a big red line above 55?" "Because you're not supposed to go any faster than that. That's the maximum speed limit."
"Oh, yeah. Why 55, anyway?"
"Well, it actually used to be higher—65, 70, even unlimited in some places—but the federal government forced the states to reduce it during the oil crisis back in the early '70s."
"To save oil?"
"But the oil crisis is over, isn't it?"
"Yes it is, but a lot of people thought that lowering the speed limit saved lives in addition to saving gas, even though it didn't really save much in the way of gas at all, and the evidence isn't really all that good that it saves lives either now that I think of it, so…"
"So why is the speed limit still 55?"
"I don't know."
"Doesn't make sense. I don't get it."
"Good for you. But let's get back to driving. Now look. This is the ignition. Insert the key like so, and now buckle your seat belt or it'll buzz at you."
"I know about this. Andrea showed me how her father disconnected the buzzers on their cars. Wanna see?"
"No, thanks. I know how to do it."
"So why not do it? Seems pretty annoying."
"I guess it is, but probably not for the reasons you think. It really is smarter to wear a seat belt, and now that you're learning to drive, I'll leave the buzzer connected until you get into the habit of putting the belt on. Besides the fact that it's dumb not to wear it, if you get stopped without it, you'll get a ticket."
"Right. It's against the law in New York not to wear a seat belt while driving."
"Can they do that?"
"But why not just make it so that you can't drive unless you fasten the seat belt or something? Then people would have to wear them."
"Clever idea, if you're into that sort of thing. It turns out that they tried that back in the '70s for a while, but people just disconnected the device. Without some way of compelling the driver to shape up, no mechanical device will serve the purpose. People will always find a way to do what they wanted to do in the first place."
"But in that case, why make them wear seat belts?"
"For their own good, remember?"
"But smoking isn't good for you, or eating too much junk food. And what about things like skydiving and speedboat racing? I mean, it seems strange that they have the right to tell you what you have to do in your own car."
"Well, even some of the law's supporters worried about that, for a minute or two. But they argued that they already had the right to require that you signal turns and things like that, so this was just a further expansion of that power. Speaking of signals, this lever operates the turn signal…"
"Somehow those don't seem the same to me."
"Oh. Well, why not?"
"Uh—I'm not sure, but it seems to me that if I don't wear my seat belt, no one else gets hurt, but if I don't signal a turn, or my brake lights don't work so that some other driver doesn't know when I'm stopping…well, it makes it pretty hard for the other guy to drive well, or safely, or something."
"Good thinking. But that's just the sort of argument used by seat-belt lawmakers in support of the law. If I don't wear my belt and I get killed or permanently disabled as a result, the insurance companies end up paying a lot of money. That raises everybody's rates. So when I don't wear a belt, it does affect you."
"I don't know. I understand what you're saying, but it still doesn't seem the same somehow. I mean if that's the worry then why not allow the insurance companies to not pay up if the driver has an accident and isn't wearing a belt?"
"Are you sure you haven't been reading up on this?"
"Never mind. The problem with that solution is that people in minor accidents will just put the belt on before the cops arrive. People in more serious accidents who wind up not collecting insurance become a burden to us in different ways. Suppose a guy gets killed in an accident and gets no insurance because he wasn't wearing a belt. Now his wife and kids go on welfare, at least for a while, and everybody still pays."
"So what are you saying? You think this is a good law? It doesn't sound like you."
"No, it's not a good law."
"But why not?"
"Because it's based on a faulty analysis. Everything I do affects other people to some extent, but there are different kinds of effects. If I do something that infringes on your rights, then I am, or should be, culpable."
"Like stealing, or beating up on somebody."
"Exactly. But you don't have a right to pay a certain amount for insurance any more than you have a right to pay only certain amounts for anything else. And by the same logic, the state of New York does not have the moral right, though it has, apparently, the legal right, to make me wear a seat belt if I don't want to."
"I guess I get it."
"If the argument on grounds of principle isn't convincing, then just look at it pragmatically for a minute. By the logic of the supporters of seat-belt laws, any action I take that raises insurance rates warrants a law to forbid that action. Remember your own examples. If I smoke, or I eat too much and become obese, odds are that I will die sooner, the insurance company pays out sooner, and everybody's rates go up. So there ought to be a law against smoking and obesity on the grounds that such laws will lower everybody's insurance rates. But of course, most people would agree that such laws would be wrong and absurd."
"Because you have a right to be unhealthy if you want to?"
"Precisely. If I want to ignore the data on smoking or wearing seat belts, you shouldn't be able to force me to do otherwise. It's very paternalistic and sets a bad precedent."
"Yeah, but now I'm confused about where you're drawing the line. I mean, what about drinking alcohol while you're driving? Remember the Johnsons? They almost got killed in that accident when the drunk driver jumped the median, and nothing happened to him at all."
"And plenty should have. He should have been arrested for reckless endangerment or something of the kind. But the solution is not to arrest everyone who drives after drinking. That leads to the same kinds of absurdities we talked about in connection with seat-belt laws."
"Why is that?"
"Because such laws are based on a statistical generalization. An apparently disproportionate number of accidents involve people who have been drinking."
"Why did you say 'apparently'?"
"Because no one really knows what percentage of the miles driven in this country are driven by people who have been drinking. But that's not the issue. I personally think it's a reasonable bet that you're more likely to be involved in an accident if you're driving while drunk. Which reminds me—if I ever catch you doing something stupid like that we'll be talking about some long-term and maybe permanent grounding, at least for as long as you live in my house and I pay the insurance bills."
"Okay, okay, I get the point. But if drinking when driving is dangerous, why not outlaw it?"
"Because it amounts to what lawyer types call 'prior restraint,' and by and large the Constitution takes a dim view of such action."
"What's 'prior restraint'?"
"Well, let's try an analogy. If you speak critically of people or attack them publicly when you're angry, you're much more likely to libel or slander them than if you never say anything. But to rule out angry or critical comments before the fact of an actual slander would mean the end of freedom of speech."
"I see where you're going with this, but it doesn't seem the same. Drunk drivers do maim and kill people."
"Slander and libel can and have killed businesses, ideas, reputations. In other words, the means to live. But take another example. It is a statistical fact that if you are a male member of any one of several minority groups and living in a major metropolitan area, you are more likely to commit a crime than if you are not a member of such a group. Does that mean I have the right to arrest you, an individual, solely on the basis of the probabilities for people grouped according to race or ethnic background?"
"Of course not!"
"Same argument applies to 'driving while intoxicated' laws. You can't use the probabilities for whole groups to decide how to treat individuals."
"So what about drunks who walk away from accidents in which they've killed people and are back on the road the next day?"
"There's a problem with laws that protect any driver who through negligence causes harm to someone else. And I would argue simply that a person who causes an accident while intoxicated has on the face of it acted negligently. The burden of proof should be on her or him to show that that was not the case. If the penalties are severe enough under those circumstances, people will use better judgement about drinking and driving because there are powerful incentives for them to do so."
"Well, I guess that might work, but it seems odd to wait until after an accident to do anything about it."
"Look, if you try to handle it any other way you wind up having to defend the idea that people can be found guilty of being in a condition that merely increases the likelihood that they might cause harm to another person! If you take that road, then you'd have to arrest people who smoke while driving, because statistics show that they're twice as likely to be involved in accidents as people who don't smoke. People who drive when extremely fatigued or sleep- deprived, or with their left elbow out the window, left pinky on the steering wheel, and right arm around some cute young thing are also more likely to be involved in accidents. Where would this lead? Pretty soon we'd all be wearing monitors that broadcast the evidence of our current physical condition to receivers in patrol cars, and anybody caught without both hands on the wheel or with abnormal body readings would be off the road and into jail before you could say 'Land of the free and home of the brave'!"
"Jeez, Dad, calm down, calm down!"
"Right, right. Okay. Listen, I think you've learned enough about driving for one day."
"But I didn't learn anything about driving."
"I know, I know, but…somehow this isn't going quite the way I imagined it would. Hey, it's a really nice day. What do you say we go get the rest of the family and go for a nice walk? We can come back to this another time."
"Well, all right, but this isn't nearly as much fun as you said it would be. I mean, what about all those great stories of spinning out in parking lots, and four-wheel drifts to just inside the double yellow lines, and long, winding roads at high speeds?"
"Yeah, well, welcome to the 1980s. Maybe people will wake up before the '90s, but just in case, maybe we'd better take that walk while it's still legal."
Ken Livingston is an associate professor of psychology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.