Driving Ourselves Mad
At 45, Chris Wheatley attempted to learn how to drive. Then he decided car culture was a form of collective madness.
Chris Wheatley is a writer and journalist based in Oxford, UK. He has too many records, too many guitars and not enough cats.
The first time I sat behind the wheel of a car, I was 45. I grew up in a low-income family. We never owned a vehicle and, to this day, only one out of six of us children have learned to drive. In fact, until recently, the idea never entered my head. This might be partially due to my life-long struggle with anxiety and depression—dealing with day-to-day life is often enough of a challenge, without adding further stress.
There's something more though. I have always felt, on a deeply instinctual level, that cars represent a form of collective insanity, a terrifying and dangerous rush away from the natural order of things which can only be detrimental to our mental health.
When I tell people about my car-reticence, they generally assume that my areas of concern are physical—road safety and environmental pollution. I do worry about these things, of course, and with good reason. The number of deaths caused by road accidents, globally, stands at around 1.3 million per year, with traffic pollution twice as deadly.
My personal unease, though, stems from a deeper place—an almost primal feeling which overwhelms me at the thought of racing traffic and endless stretches of concrete. Those stretches are considerable. Globally, there exists an estimated 40 million miles of road, and every inch of that concrete has displaced an inch of nature. I grew up in a leafy suburb. Large cities always make me feel uncomfortable. Sitting behind the wheel of a car gave me that same feeling. The first time I drove on a busy highway, that sensation intensified.
It turns out, the mere presence of cars is bad for our psyche. A 2017 study in Glasgow, Scotland found that, “participants living nearer to the new M74 motorway experienced significantly reduced mental well-being over time.” While I feel this on a spiritual level, it seems that there may well be a direct chemical connection between cars and mental health. In 2020, a study from King's College, London, found evidence that even small increases in vehicle emissions correlated to dramatically increased rates in clinical depression. Even after accounting for other environmental factors, such as poor living conditions and lack of green space, researchers found that, compared to neighborhoods with low vehicle emissions, residents in high emission locations were far more likely to suffer from serious mental health problems.
This isn't the only research to highlight this startling connection. Scientists at University College, London, came to the same conclusion. “We already know that air pollution is bad for people’s health, here, we’re showing that air pollution could be causing substantial harm to our mental health as well, making the case for cleaning up the air we breathe even more urgent,” Isobel Braithwaite, a doctor of psychiatry at University College London, said in the report.
I started driving lessons despite all of my reservations. Aside from the practical benefits, I wanted to challenge myself and my preconceptions. But sometime around my fifth or sixth outing, my driving came to a literal standstill. I found myself, at the urging of my instructor, facing off against a large bus, at the other end of a narrow gap. “He should come through first,” determined my instructor. I sat behind the wheel as the bus-driver gestured angrily. When he did, at last, steer his vehicle through the gap, my instructor got out of our car to shout and argue as he passed. I was left thinking how ridiculous this all was.
The phenomenon of road rage has long been acknowledged as being of major social concern. Research shows that learning relaxation and mindfulness techniques can combat driving aggression, but why does such aggression occur in the first place? Possibly because cars often become an extension of ourselves, allowing pent-up anger and stress to emerge. Worse, these metal wombs can easily foster a false sense of security and detachment. Unless we experience a crash first-hand, it is very difficult to grasp the enormous forces which are at play, even at slow speeds.
Not everybody, of course, becomes a demon behind the wheel, but the phenomenon of road rage suggests that there is something inherent to driving that magnifies the violent instinct in us.
My driving friends are quick to acknowledge their environmental concerns, and their desire to switch to electric vehicles, but the problem with cars runs much deeper: cars, and the infrastructure needed to sustain them, quite literally represent a separation between humankind and the natural environment. Our reliance on vehicles, highways and concrete strips us of our innate connection to our environs. Humans, we are saying, are no longer a part of the ecosphere.
Psychologists, philosophers and environmentalists have long been aware of the deep-rooted problems that result from our disconnection from nature. In a fascinating interview for Womankind, celebrated primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall observed, “We are divorced from nature in a disastrous way, seeming not to realize that if we continue living like this we shall end up destroying ourselves. Moreover, we need to connect to nature for our spiritual health. This is particularly true for children.”
An Australian study in 2014, concluded that, “longer driving time was associated with higher odds for smoking, insufficient physical activity, short sleep, obesity, and worse physical and mental health.” Studies elsewhere show that driving more than ten miles each day results in higher blood sugar levels, higher cholesterol, increased blood pressure and lack of sleep. On the flip side, cycling or walking results in a proven boost for both the mind and the spirit. A remarkable piece of research undertaken in Denmark shows of 20,000 children studied, between the ages of 5 and 19, those who cycled or walked to school displayed a measurable and lasting increase in concentration. There exists plenty of further evidence that cycling, in particular, does much to combat cognitive decline and depression.
Perhaps the roots of my anxiety towards cars lie in separation. Behind layers of plastic and metal, surrounded by tarmac, buildings and other, artificially-encased individuals, I feel isolated in an unnatural world of harsh, cold textures. Humans and nature should not be not divided. Driving man-made vehicles through artificially-made landscapes, it seems to me, does indeed display a form of shared madness, or more properly a delusion. A delusion which asks us to believe, in spite of all evidence, that the transport networks we have built and the vehicles we use are a good thing.
The dominant belief is that cars form a welcome and irreplaceable part of modern life, that their convenience benefits us as individuals and as a society, and that those benefits outweigh any negative effects. What advantages, though, do they really bring? Without individual vehicles we would work closer to our homes, local shops and services would thrive and public transport would improve radically. This is called community.
At the age of 45 I had several driving lessons. In the end, I gave up. The experience did nothing to change my long-held suspicions that these rampaging chunks of metal do not enrich our lives. In fact, it was something of a relief to let go of my internal struggle. I am not in any way ‘odd,’ a ‘misfit,’ or a ‘luddite,’ so far as my attitude towards cars is concerned. There is plenty of evidence out there to show that our overwhelming reliance on cars, quite apart from their environmental impact, is severely damaging to our mental and spiritual selves.