We live in a safety-obsessed culture, something that becomes immediately apparent when you take your seat behind the wheel of a modern automobile. Seatbelts, airbags, ABS, back-up cameras, lane-departure warning systems, automatic emergency braking... Today’s cars are way smarter than the horses that once pulled them.
Despite all this safety technology, road deaths are at a 10-year high, and cars (or, more accurately, their drivers) kill over 40,000 people per year. One reason for this is that we’re increasingly distracted by our phones—indeed, if you think about it, hitting a 10-year high about 10 years after the first iPhone came out sounds about right. Another reason for all the carnage is that, despite all these safety gew-gaws, the SUV is basically designed to kill people. See, because we’re so in love with oversized cars, the auto industry keeps churning out death machines. However, instead of selling them to the military along with tanks and fighter jets, they’re leasing them to us for $399 per month with $3,900 due at signing.
Alas, while we may be safety-obsessed, we’re also common-sense-challenged. That’s why instead of confronting our giant-car addiction, we’re trying to put more high-tech safety crap on cyclists and pedestrians instead. We also keep trying to delude ourselves into believing that all this killing is suddenly going to disappear thanks to the self-driving car. Sure, autonomous cars are unlikely to take over the roads anytime soon, but they’re already perhaps the greatest excuse for doing fuck-all that the world has ever seen. In the meantime, we just keep texting away and trusting that our bloated vehicles will protect us.
Fortunately, there’s another way to make our roads safer, and it doesn’t involve placing all our faith in an egomaniac with questionable management skills. (I’m referring to this one, not this one, though if we adopt this plan the current administration will get to tear down a bunch of onerous safety regulations, which is what it loves to do anyway.) It also doesn’t require some sort of futuristic technology that doesn’t exist yet. In fact, it doesn’t require any new technology at all. Best of all, the price of your next car will almost certainly come down dramatically.
All we’ve got to do is rip out all these damn features and creature comforts and Make the Automobile Dangerous Again.
The key here is reminding people that operating a motor vehicle actually requires a certain amount of concentration and skill, and the way to do that is to pare these machines down to the bare essentials. Think about it: When are you more engaged? When you’re on a bicycle, descending a mountain road on a contact patch the width of your thumb, with nothing between you and the tarmac but a thin layer of Lycra? Or when you’re in a 4,000-pound climate-controlled, sound-deadened, suspension-dampened Honda Pilot that’s essentially a 280-horsepower simulacrum of your living room sofa?
Yes, flensing the bloated SUV like the whale carcass it is could very well be the key to safer roadways. The first feature we should remove is the automatic transmission. This would have the immediate effect of taking who knows how many millions of drivers off the road, thanks to the fact that most Americans now regard manual transmissions with the same bewilderment as they do rotary phones. (And the drivers who do know how to use a stick shift are probably more interested in driving and therefore better at it.) No doubt we’d also see a tremendous decrease in the number of senior citizens driving their cars into storefronts, since with a manual transmission you’ve got to make a concerted effort to put your car into reverse.
Those still determined to drive would eventually learn how to operate a manual transmission and purchase new cars—only next they’d find new cars no longer come standard with backup cameras. Or automatic emergency braking systems. Or Bluetooth connectivity. Or entertainment systems. Or even airbags or seatbelts. Nope, now you’ve got nothing to watch but the road. Oh sure, you can still look at your actual phone, but maybe now you’ll think twice about hitting something, as doing so would mean a guaranteed one-way trip through your windshield.
Even after the complete de-Naderization of the automobile, many people still won’t think twice about driving—that is until there’s no more climate control. Hot outside? Well, guess what? Now it’s hot in the car too! No more sitting in an idling car for 45 minutes on a 90-degree day, futzing with your phone while you pump more carbon emissions into the atmosphere. And maybe freezing your ass off in winter will help remind you that you’re not actually invincible in your SUV. Maybe that snotsicle hanging from your nose will help you remember that when it gets cold outside, the road gets icy. Maybe you’ll even start taking those blizzard warnings seriously instead of spending the night on the expressway because you thought your all-wheel drive was more powerful than nature.
Without all those extras to protect them in a crash, it’s only a matter of time before drivers start to realize that SUVs were a stupid idea. Cars will get smaller and so will their engines. If all goes well, by 2030, we’ll all be driving 1960s roadsters with better reliability—and due to the lack of safety features, drivers will instead be pressured to wear motoring helmets. With any luck, eventually those helmets will become mandatory, because nothing discourages people like helmet laws. In the end, driving will finally be the exclusive domain of a handful of enthusiasts, and tomorrow’s motorist will be no different than those people you see riding around on Can-Am Spyders today.
As for commuting, running errands, and generally getting things done, the vast majority of people will opt for a safe, efficient machine that makes sense. You know, like a bicycle.