What Cars and Driving Do to Us

what cars and driving do to us

By Troy Headrick

I had been thinking for several days about the possibility of writing something about automobiles and driving and the impact these things have on our mental health and happiness, and then I saw that Betul Erbasi had published this piece on slowing down.  As someone who writes regularly for Pointless Overthinking, I have noticed a certain interesting synchronicity.  Another writer will address an issue I’m currently interested in thus prompting me to think further about the topic and write with even greater vigor once I put pen to paper.  I suppose this suggests there’s something akin to a collective consciousness that develops and manifests itself among a group of writers who are working collaboratively.

I want to begin with a brief backstory.  I am an American who lived, for nearly two decades, outside my home country and have now returned to the place I was born.  During my expatriation phase, I did not own a car.  Today, though, because I live in the land of the automobile, I own two of these expensive machines.  Since I have resided both with and without automobiles, I feel that I’ve developed some insight into how these wheeled contraptions negatively affect our overall well-being.

Also, to prepare to write this piece, I read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking,” a seminal essay on how using our legs connects us to nature.  Thoreau was a prolific walker and believed that the way we get around greatly affects our physical and mental health.  I recommend that everyone read Thoreau’s wonderful piece.

The analysis which follows rests on the assumption that our bodies and minds are connected, and that the way we use our bodies affects the way our minds think.

When humans drive, their bodies, enveloped in a metal skin, race through time and space at a high rate of speed.  This racing literally affects their ability to observe, take note, and process information.  Thoreau would say that humans were never meant to move faster than their feet could carry them.  Thinking about my own experience, when I lived without a car and walked everywhere, I saw more, was able to both connect with my surroundings and appreciate their beauty, and felt more peaceful and happy.  (It goes without saying that I was also in the best shape of my life.)  Moving slowly has a calming effect and also promotes concentration as the eyes and other senses have the opportunity to take note and focus.

Drivers, on the other hand, race past things and thus have no opportunity to see, take note, appreciate, or ponder.  There is this strange thing that happens to the mind belonging to a racing body:  The mind begins to imitate the body and starts racing too.  We intuitively understand that moving past things at breakneck speed is unnatural and are prone to feelings of anxiety and anger as a result.  Road rage is one way this anger manifests itself.  Have you ever heard of a situation where a stroller became enraged while in the act of strolling due to the way another stroller, in his or her immediate vicinity, was moving?

Driving makes people frenetic and impatient.  It seems that having the ability to move fast makes us hungry for even more speed.  And the faster we go, the more we feel endangered and out of control.

So, what can be done?  Well, for one, we need to park our cars and look for opportunities to walk.  We need to realize that faster is certainly not always better.  Faster equates with quantity while slower equates with quality.

What do you think about the argument I’ve made here?  Do you agree?  Disagree?  I’d love to hear from you.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.


61 thoughts on “What Cars and Driving Do to Us

  1. Yes, yes, manifests in a group. Me too, got the flow to write full posts to respond to discussions with others, as if the idea is expanding as it passes through us. A collective consciousness, indeed!

    1. Fantastic! Writing is often considered a solitary activity, but many writers “fuel up”–I’m maintaining my car metaphor–by talking with others about their ideas or by hearing others talk about their ideas. I love your comment!

  2. Personally, I’ve always hated driving, seeing it as a necessary evil. I’ve been traveling the east coast for the last 2 weeks and we’ve walked so much! It’s been great!

    1. Our bodies, minds, and spirits respond so positively when we step out of the machine, slow down, and use our legs to move around. Thanks so much for your comment!

  3. When I was in my early 20’s I walked everywhere. Work, school, it didn’t matter. A 3 mile commute was a wonderful hour away from the world. It’s no longer a practical option but I really miss the “destination ” walk. I’ve written a piece on the miseries of driving ( JustThinking.blog, “Driverless Cars Can’t be Worse Than Brainless Drivers”) which might bring you a smile.

    1. Like you, I miss my walking life. When we drive, it’s all about arriving, but when we walk, it’s all about journeying. I certainly am looking forward to reading your piece about cars and all that. And I like the title of your blog: JustThink. There’s far too little thinking going on in the world today! Thanks for commenting.

  4. Very well observed. The reason behind such coping up with speed is that our hardwire is much slower than our machines. For example, our eyes understand a shutter speed of one-tenth of a second so that anything faster will give an illusion of motion picture and with that apparent decrease of sensitivity, the quality of reception starts fading. Hence, speed relates to quantity while slowness relates to quality.

    1. Yes! You’ve put your finger on the problem. WE ARE NOT MACHINES AND IT MAKES US UNHAPPY TO HAVE TO ACT LIKE THEM. Do you blog? If so, please post a link here so that I can check out your writing.

      1. Yes, as TheLinearLearner, not a typical web log of daily activities, but like yours, “overthinking” (as your blog name says, hence following) of matters that occur to me. The Foreword page of the blog may reveal the eccentricity of my occasional hyperbolic thoughts, verbalized into elliptic posts.

  5. Canada too is a land of the automobile, given the great distances we have here.

    I just came back from Switzerland where we spent 2 weeks traveling around by public transit. It was phenomenal. I did not miss the car at all. But back home in Canada, despite living in a dense metropolitan area where much is located close by, there is simply not enough efficient infastructure in place to get us where we need to go in a timely manner. This is sad and unfortunate and adds to the side effects you mentioned when we sit in congested traffic on a daily basis.


    1. I’m happy to see more and more public transportation developing in the US. Alas, it’s too little, too late. I have lived in (and traveled to) many places with wonderful transportation systems. If more North Americans could have similar experiences (like you and I have had), there might be a push to try to replicate (in some form or fashion) what Europe and other places have managed to do. Thank you so much for your comment!

  6. I also think driving affects relationships negatively. In Chile on the bus or metro I’d see families enjoying themselves together. Cars are stressful because of the speed of driving and amount of traffic, which creates barriers between the driver and passengers. The “shut up I’m driving” effect. Thanks for this insightful post. -Rebecca

    1. Yes! Yes! Yes! You’ve done a better job describing the symptoms of this kind of “illness” than I have. When we drive, we actually climb into the belly of a machine (and thus become the machine or are “consumed” by it). I often feel like I don’t own my cars; they own me. I totally appreciate your comments! If you blog, I’ll check our your writing. Thank you so much!

      1. Thanks, I remember I was struck by the peacefulness of the decent mass transport system in Chile. It allows for good socializing. My blog Fake Flamenco awaits you. Hope you enjoy the posts. -Rebecca

      2. Thanks. I’m definitely going to check it out. I’ve traveled so much but haven’t been to South America. That’s a real oversight on my part. I’ve been thinking about going to Ecuador for a year or so. Should just go ahead and do it.

      3. Thanks 🙂 Ecuador would be great; the Galapagos! We traveled in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brasil. I’ve written posts about the first three. Time for me to talk about Brasil. -Rebecca

  7. I agree with you. When I travel I try to walk places as much as possible. I don’t do that here in Kansas City because everything is spread so far apart, but if I can I will walk. Its healthy for you!

    1. Yes! We all know it’s healthy for the body, but I’ve tried to point out that it’s healthy for the mind too. If you live in a neighborhood that’s close to a lot of the kinds of shops you need to visit on a regular basis, you could buy a bike and bike to those spots. My wife and I live in such a neighborhood in San Antonio and I try to bike as much as I can. I also feel so much at ease when I bike around on my beach cruiser! Thanks so much for your comment and keep on walking!

      1. Yeah, I totally agree on the benefits for the mind for sure. I get a little road ragey. I do live close to some shops, but there are also highways nearby so I’d have to be really safe. Still a good idea though!

        Also, I like to walk around a lot in the fall especially when the leaves start falling. Its so beautiful and relaxing.

      2. I agree. I don’t like the person I become when I’m driving to work in the morning. The fall is a great time for walking. Something about the falling leaves, cooler weather, and shorter days.

      3. Yeah, the negativity can really be toxic. But all we can do is try to better ourselves when we feel that anger. I fail a lot, but sometimes I keep it contained and just remind myself that there’s no rush and to stop stressing.

        Yep, fall is my favorite season, so you know I’m counting the days!

  8. Interesting post. Sadly, there are a lot of parts of the United States that aren’t geared toward any means of travel other than driving. I live about ten miles from my job, and have to cross a river on a major interstate highway to get there. I couldn’t walk that if I wanted to. (Okay, I suppose it’s possible, but it would take me a long time to walk ten miles, and if cars were driving on that bridge? Just…no.) We’re often too spread out to walk to the nearest store, or the library, or the post office, or wherever we need to go. So how does that change? Can it change? Or are we as Americans so sold on the idea of our wheeled independence that the steering wheels would have to be pried out of our hands?

    And let’s not get into the colossal waste of time and energy that is the traffic jam. This interstate highway I navigate each day is awful with traffic. That doesn’t do anything to improve stress levels.

    1. I hear you! We have to look for small victories where we can find them. It sounds like you might live in a rural place or a suburb. You could buy a bike and tool around the place where you live. (Check out my comments to Jonny above.) I also love biking because I don’t feel like I’ve been swallowed by a giant machine that just wants me to feed it all the time! Thanks for your comment!

  9. I definitely agree with you on this. I do, however, spend a good deal of time in my truck towing my travel trailer because I am full time RVer. I drive no more than 2-4 hours at a time and then I find a place to camp for anywhere from 2-14 days which is rarely at a campground but in a very quiet place preferably in the middle of nowhere. I then can relax and walk through the woods, along a river or a lake, etc.

    1. Now that’s the way to drive! I’ll never forget an experience I had years ago. I was camping with friends in Big Bend National Park. We were really roughing it, but I witnessed so many people simply driving through the park without ever getting out of their cars. I thought that was weird and signs of some deeper cultural issues. By the way, I found your blog and will look at it. I wandered a lot too, but internationally. Years ago, my mom gave me a little embroidered pillow that read: “Not all who wander are lost.” I still have that little pillow and I really like the sentiment expressed on it. Thanks for the comment.

  10. This article has so much food for thought that I have saved it again.
    I am a great fan of the Pointless Over thinking group of writers. All of you provide great insights into life and people. Many of my posts on Self and personal development have been triggered by the discussions on this forum

    1. Hi and thanks for the comment. Much about modern life forces humans to act like machines, especially since most of us have jobs that are very demanding and require lots of productivity. One of the reasons spending so much time in cars is so dissatisfying is people don’t want to be machines–we want to be people–but when we’re behind the wheel, we literally merge with a machine and have to act like one. This feels deeply unnatural. Please post a link to your site in case I haven’t already had a chance to look at it. I’d really like to see some of your writing.

  11. Spot on!!! Another book along those lines is called ” Walking Meditation” by Nguyen Anh-Huong and Thich Nhat Hanh. Don’t ask me to pronounce their names. It’s a very small book with instructional DVD and CD with meditative music. One foot in front of the next foot in front of the next foot. Walking barefoot if possible. Becoming one with the earth, grounded.

    1. Wow! Thanks so much for recommending “Walking Meditation.” A part of me would love to simply sell everything and live way off the grid–sort of like Thoreau did. But we all have to make money to pay those bills. Yada yada yada. This world has got us by the you-know-what, and we all have to find our own ways to live with that fact. Thanks so much for responding. By the way, do you blog? If so, why not post a link here so I (and others) can check it out.

  12. I don’t know. As someone who lives in a house with narrow walkways it is easy to get annoyed at road blocks. And to be honest my favorite part of driving in mid to late summer is watching for fuzzy caterpillars on the road.

    1. Hi. Thanks for the comment. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done cross-country drives that were wonderful. I just wish more Americans had the opportunity (or took the opportunity) to move around at a slower pace. A person doing so is able to see so much more (like fuzzy caterpillars). Perhaps you should walk around where you live and have a closer look at these caterpillars? You might notice things about them that you are able to notice while driving past them.

  13. I am a walker and agree with your essay. I also like the statement “Fast is quantity. slow is quality’. Walking allows me to think and process and also understand my surroundings. Well said.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment! I always like to meet a fellow walker. I don’t do near enough of it anymore, now that I live in the US, but I’ve promised myself that I’m going to restart my life as a foot traveler. Yes, I also think very well when I walk. I also feel really peaceful. This feeling, I think, is my body and mind telling me how happy they are that I’m giving them what they cherish.

  14. Lovely post! First, I like the observation: “I suppose this suggests there’s something akin to a collective consciousness that develops and manifests itself among a group of writers who are working collaboratively.” Well-said! I also wanted to share a similar experience. I am normally in the US, the land of the car. So, I did not walk as much. But I was in Germany for the last 50 days and people walk a lot more here. I clearly see a significant difference in my mind’s calmness. I think there is indeed an effect.

    1. Hi and thanks for the compliments and comments. It’s funny how frequently I find that one of the writers here suddenly publishes a post on a topic I’ve been pondering. If that’s not sign of a “collective unconsciousness,” then I don’t know what is. Having lived in America now for the past four years, i’m finding that I’m putting on weight and feeling stressed a lot. Some of that stress is related to how we get around and how complicated life has to be here because the US doesn’t provide opportunities and services that are readily available elsewhere, especially in Europe. By the way, i sent you an email to your personal gmail account. Please have a look at it. Take care!

    1. Thank you. I’ve long had this love-hate relationship with the automobile and i took this opportunity to look at that relationship. I appreciate your participation is this conversation.

  15. Thanks for your thoughts on driving. I would like to say thanks to you for this article. Only thing I would to say that it’s not the driving which makes motorists impatient. It’s the impatient drivers who use driving as excuse to be impatient. I run driving schools in wellingborough and surrounding areas and I see lots of impatient drivers everyday.

    1. Thank you for your comment and I wish you the very best in your business venture. (My wife and I own a small business so I know how all that works.) I guess my point is that I have lived owning cars and driving them and not owning cars (and thus not driving them) and find that I’m a very different person when I’m behind the wheel than when I’m not. Of course, I can’t blame all this on the car itself. But there does seem to be something of a causative factor. Certainly, not all impatience comes from the act of driving. Being in cars give us the power to rush and this rushing acts like a kind of stimulant to the system that makes many both physically less healthy–there is great obesity in the US–and psychologically less healthy–there is so much road rage in the country too. This is certainly something I see in my own life and also happening all around me in America.

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  17. I remember many years of journeys without a car. I went to a small private school in an rural environment. In the beginning of my time there, I waited for a van transport home each afternoon. Then I decided to just walk home, instead. It was a four mile walk. I did feel part of nature, or I was creating stories in my head. My stories. Sometimes people I knew spotted me and gave me a ride part of the way. Then I went to university. Four years without a car there. I loved the buses, though. I was often squeezed between other students. It was like being in a herd, of sorts. We were all headed in the same direction with a similar purpose. Then off to Berkeley, California where I lived two years. Again, no car. I walked to work each day and all around town. Sometimes I took the BART to San Francisco. That’s a great city to pound the pavement! Then on to Taiwan. I didn’t even own a scooter, like many did. Initially I walked hours per day, observing the hustle and bustle and smelling the unique smells and sounds. The beauty and benefit of mindfulness!

    When I returned to my home state after my travels, I was forced to buy a car. Though my state is densely populated, it still has smallish towns. It has its rural beauty, but a lot of suburban areas, too. After starting a career, the rat race began. Yes, I drove most everywhere. I had to get places quick, quick, quick. There was lots and lots to do, and little time to do it. A trip with a cart in the grocery store became like a type of car. Just as there’s road rage, cart rage exists, too.

    Sometimes life in general is an analogy for a tunnel vision run, and not a panoramic walk. Many of us work(ed) 60 hours per week, plus errands, chores, cooking, cleaning, and carting kids here and there. Trying to fit in some gym time? Or something else? Even that’s often a fast-moving rush. Then there’s the sad reality that most people in my country (the US) have little time for vacation. They start most out at two weeks. My nephew in Czech Republic starts at five, plus many other days the average person doesn’t get in the states. Some people even take express vacations, like whirl-wind tours. Eight cities in eight days? That’s not uncommon for some.

    TV and movies can be nice, but in moderation, I think. Over time they became an unhealthy escape, for some. I think that if you get too much, it’s almost like giving your life away. I’ve lived years with little to no access to TV or movies. Did I miss them? Honestly? Very little. Even today I only watch the “tube” when my husband puts it on. I’m by his side, but we communicate little other than a laugh here and there. Our focus is in one direction. The screen we watch doesn’t reflect any “true” reality. And it feeds us stuff that sometimes does us harm.

    I am not a heavy cell phone user, but I confess I do spend oodles of time on the internet. I could definitely be better served by walking outside more, but I don’t. The sad reality is that I get more social contact in places like this. Though woods are nearby and I love seeing animals, I yearn for people contact. Unfortunately, so much social contact on the outside is transactional. Many of us see our family and friends so little, nowadays. I know this may be different in other places around the world, but where I am, in my situation, it is often the world.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. This is going to sound strange (perhaps). America, which prides itself as being one of the freest countries in the world is actually one of the least free. I say that after having lived in five countries which gives me lots of experience in other places thus adding validity to such a comparative claim. Freedom is about the ability to make choices. Here, so many choices are made for us. For example, I want to choose to use public transportation where in live in America. That choice doesn’t really exist. I want to be free from fear about healthcare-related issues. Well, because the healthcare system is so hard to understand and access, I’m not free from such a fear. Do you see what I mean?

      By the way, you mentioned writer’s block. Many of those topics you just listed in your comment would make wonderful subjects for exploration. And you are a good enough writer–I’ve been a college writing instructor for years–that you can do a lot with all those topics…

      No pressure, though. Think about the blogging offer. If it doesn’t feel right, I perfectly understand. Maybe we could put you on a two-pieces-a-month schedule?

      1. Troy, I see exactly what you mean. It’s sadly so true.

        It’s funny that you mentioned that my comment might be worth exploring as a topic. This post of yours actually did that. I just posted much of what I wrote here as a new post. I expanded on it and self edited a bit. So you know, I referred to your post as an inspiration and included a link to your blog. Is that OK? Let me know if not.

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