It’s unfortunate that the recent, unbearably tragic, incidents of children being forgotten in cars and dying of heat stroke have not been linked to the social phenomenon of car dependence. This linkage needs to become a regular feature of public discourse regarding the place of the automobile in our lives and in our environment.
There is no intention here of blaming the bereaved parents or of questioning their fitness or the love they bear their children. Clearly, any one of us could make the same mistake under similar circumstances, as has been widely noted. All that I want to do in the following lines is to call attention to the way in which a prevailing car-oriented mindset translates into land use patterns and interpersonal behaviors that, ultimately, are dangerous and anti-social.
By land use patterns, I’m referring to the way in which our built environment is organized, and the consequences of that mode of organization for our everyday activity.
A question that nobody is asking: why are so many babies and toddlers being transported to their caregivers and day care centers each morning by car? The answer would seem to be that there are no caregivers or day care centers within a convenient walking distance of their homes. If you live in a compact, pedestrian-friendly community, you should be able to get your young children to their educational and daycare frameworks without the aid of an internal combustion engine. Even if you have to drop off a preschooler, a toddler and an infant, all before setting off for work — in a properly-organized locality this ought to be do-able on foot.
The reality, unfortunately, is not the case. Many, perhaps most of us reside in sprawling localities and neighborhoods where nothing is close to anything else and you have to get into a car in order to run the simplest errand.We tend not to question this and have forgotten that it can be otherwise. And our children suffer for it.
We seem to have been brainwashed into thinking that it is natural and normal to put a baby every morning into a huge and dangerous motorized metal container, fasten him into a specially-designed restraint, and ensure that that restraint is situated in a spot within the metal container where there can be no possibility of physical contact, or even of eye contact, between the baby and the adult who is responsible for him. Of course we’ve been similarly persuaded that the facade of every residential building should be dominated by a garage entrance, and that our streets should look like collections of garages …
that we can’t go to the grocery store for a loaf of bread without a car …
that school is a place to which children must be transported by car — since they can’t be expected to get there on foot …
… and that there is no point in building schools in accessible locations, or in planning streets and neighborhoods that are pedestrian-friendly. After all, there are no longer any pedestrians; there are only drivers and passengers.
The image of the baby fastened and immobilized like some lifeless object within the huge metal container is an image that is entirely consistent with our landscape — a landscape of asphalt expanses — multi-lane roads that have to be crossed in order to reach the pathetic little neighborhood commercial strip, intra-neighborhood freeways that have to be traversed in order to get to preschool, giant parking lots surrounding big-box shopping centers and office “parks” detached from any urban fabric or context.
Parking lots! How many cases of baby-boiling, especially in the US, have taken place in the parking lots of Home Depot and other such stores? Should the fact that tragedies occur in such inhuman places really surprise us? When we, as a society, abandon the idea of human-scaled living environments, workplaces and shopping venues; when we dedicate ever-larger portions of our environment to King Car, is it any wonder that the human being shrinks in importance, and that the cries of the boiling baby go unheard?
And what of the behavioral sphere to which I alluded above — the impact of car orientation/dependence on our perceptions and on the way in which we relate to the world around us, and to the people with whom we share that world? Well, let’s just look at what happens to us when we get in the car. We all know that when we drive we have to detach ourselves from the surrounding environment and, basically, adopt the perspective of that metal hulk that encases us. As soon as we get behind the wheel, we cease to relate to the world as humans with a sensory apparatus, and turn, effectively, into automatons. After all, you can’t drive in a state of attention to the little things — sounds, smells — that a person out in the open (minus the metal exoskeleton) would naturally notice. When we drive we are forbidden even to turn our heads and glance toward a scene — however fascinating or harrowing — that we might be passing in our car. We are unable to stop for so much as a moment to get a better look at something — the other metal containers on the road will get angry and start trumpeting their objection to any slackening of the pace.
We must not, of course, think too much about what we are doing while we drive — to switch off autopilot is confusing. We must simply execute the actions of driving out of habit, on a motor-memory basis. Autopilot obviously has its place in life — a very considerable place — but perhaps it is time we acknowledged that a lifestyle requiring us to regularly get from Point A to Point B in such a state, while operating a dangerous machine, is not optimal. Even were there no risks of life and limb involved, the degradation of our experience would make automobile dependence a deplorable life strategy.
The driver-automaton is best off when nothing unusual is going on, as we’ve seen in the incidents where babies were left behind in cars by parents who weren’t their usual drivers.
The ultimate aspiration of car travel is uniformity: getting from Point A to Point B by automobile should, ideally, feel, look, sound and smell the same from one occasion to the next. By contrast, a person who walks — and it doesn’t matter how many times he has trodden the distance from Point A to Point B, or how capable he is of doing it blindfolded — will never be detached from his environment to the degree that a driver is, and every trip will be, for him, a discrete experience. His senses will always function. However lost in thought he may be, he will react to physical stimuli such as the way in which the person coming toward him is dressed, a familiar voice calling out to him, the neighbor’s rioting bougainvillea, the warmth of the small hand grasped in his own, the slow and erratic pace of the toddler by his side, the solidity of the handle of the stroller he is pushing. He will notice changes and minor details. In a sense, no walking trip is routine.
There is much talk of solutions — high- and low-tech. Warning systems. Stickers. Phone calls from preschool teachers when children don’t show up — preschool teachers being notoriously underworked. Oh wait: there’s an app for that. These are airbag solutions — they reduce the damage but don’t address the real problem — our unchallenged assumption that the private automobile is the preferred mode of transportation, in all situations and places, and that we must adapt our environment and way of life to suit its needs. As long as we think our children don’t deserve to experience a healthy connection to their environment — as manifested in the way that they get from Point A to Point B — we’ll keep putting them at risk in physical conditions that are inhuman and via behaviors marked by detachment from the world and inattention to the things that count.