I have an irrational fear or cars. It's not a phobia (I guess...), although sometimes it almost seems to be.
Example 1: I only feel comfortable crossing the street either if it's green (well, white in the US) for me or when cars are far far FAR away.
Example 2: I sometimes feel uncomfortable on the sidewalk of a busy road with cars buzzing by so close to me.
Example 3: Driving makes me very anxious.
Example 4: I don't like being a passenger in a car that goes very fast on the highway.
Ok, it is probably a phobia after all.
I have searched my soul and memory trying to explain to myself (or incredulous others) why I feel this way. When I was a teenager, I once crossed a street just a few seconds before somebody walking behind me was hit by a fast-driving car. I remember turning around to see what happened. All cars stopped. A body was lying on the road (I don't remember any gory details). The driver who had just hit the person ran out of her car and was kneeling next to the body. I don't remember much beyond that, I guess I continued walking. I was wearing blue wide-leg jeans and a pink sweater. It was a warm sunny day.
Rationally, this explanation seems plausible after all. But when I tell the story, I feel nothing. In fact, it took me a while to make the connection between this experience and my fear of cars.
Another possible explanation comes from my observations of car-driving people from a position of a pedestrian, a passenger, or a car owner and user. What I keep noticing is that car-drivers are often not very nice to fellow human beings. Apparently, cultural differences exist, with some places being rougher than others. Yet overall, once an otherwise decent person gets into her or his metal beast and presses gas, they somehow change. And this scares me a lot.
It almost seems like when people turn into drivers, something happens to their empathy. They don't know how (or don't want) to see those they share the road with as humans worthy of respect.
Anonymity is probably a factor. Yes, all cars have identifying numbers, and you can technically see other drivers' faces through the windshield. Still, the metal mass stands in the way of the real human contact. We cannot really read each other's body language, and voices are substituted by honking, which is basically a sound of anger (although it is meant to be a warning). What kind of conversation can we have if the only thing we can do is scream without words?
We lack empathy when we struggle to see each other as humans with similar goals, hopes, and concerns. The perceived anonymity does not help. We are busy honking or cutting off other motorists, thinking that nobody will have time to write down our number or to see our face. In the process, each person's conviction that other drivers are just mean, crazy, or stupid is further reinforced.
I secretly hope that self-driving cars will solve all the problems. However, it is unlikely to be so. I don't believe in evil technology, but I do think that technology feeds into our biases and amplifies blind spots. No innovation can substitute healthy self-awareness and real human connection. Drive safe! Be kind to each other.
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