Car Wreck

By Catherine Lutz & Anne Lutz Fernandez '84 / November/December 2009
November 23rd, 2009

Dave, a night-shift worker at a Walmart returns center in upstate New York, is a quiet sixty-six-year-old who lights up when asked about cars. We met him at the Saratoga Auto Museum, in Saratoga, New York, where he was getting ready to head out for a Saturday morning drive in his beloved 2004 Ford Mustang. He sported a Watkins Glen racetrack jacket and a sweatshirt, beneath which peeked the collar of a vintage car-print shirt. Asked when he started to become interested in cars, he replied without missing a beat: "When I opened my eyes and realized I was born."

Mark Ostow
Professor of Anthropology Catherine Lutz, left, and former investment banker Anne Lutz Fernandez '84, right, argue that technology alone will not save us from the damage cars do to us and to our environment.. 

Whether Americans identify themselves as car buffs, gearheads, or as pragmatists whose cars are appliances for getting around, they have accepted owning a car as an unremarkable and inescapable fact of life. And that's how it had always seemed to us. As two sisters raised in post–World War II New Jersey suburbs—made possible by massive government investments in roads, single-home mortgages, and GI tax deductions—we grew up with cars and had some fine adventures in them. As teens, we gloried in at least occasionally getting the car keys, and, like many of our friends, enjoyed the interesting opportunities presented by the back seat. As adults, we have lived in our cars, eating burgers and spilling coffee, applying mascara thanks to the rearview mirror, even changing our clothes in them. On the road, we've had deep conversations about the meaning of our lives, waged petty fights, and belted it out with Springsteen.

But when Catherine began working and raising a family in a North Carolina suburb, she found herself too often strapped into her car, creeping through three-light delays as she took her children to dance class and baseball practice, or circling and circling to find a spot in the parking lot at her office. She commuted there by car, even though she lived a mere mile away, because it was hard to imagine another way. Something began to feel wrong about all this, but what it was only came home the caustically bright morning that a phone call arrived announcing that our cousin Kristie had been killed in a car crash. A short time later one of Anne's close friends was killed on the highway. These were just two of roughly 40,000 annual road deaths. To us, it became logical, even imperative, to ask: Why do cars play such a central role in our lives? Are they truly as essential as they seem? Is there a safer, saner way to live with the car and to have the mobility we need?

As we listened to how people talk about the car, we realized how deeply it has become the vehicle of some core American values about freedom, individuality, progress, family, and opportunity, to name just a few. But we also talked to a multitude of drivers whose experiences indicate that cars subvert those same core values to which they appeal.

Drawing on Catherine's training as an anthropologist, we took an ethnographic approach, asking people to tell us their ideas and to relate their everyday experiences with their cars. We talked to men and women of all ages and ethnicities across a large range of zip codes. We talked to auto dealers and salespeople, to mechanics and marketers. We talked to EMTs, rehab workers, funeral directors, and grief counselors, all of whom deal with the devastating aftermath of car crashes. We talked to activists who study suburban sprawl, car safety, and predatory car-loan practices. We studied the numbers, including economic, traffic, and safety data. From all of this, we were able to make out the features of a car system that insinuates itself into almost every aspect of our lives, from how we spend our money to the amount and quality of time we spend with our loved ones. This car system determines where we live and work, while the number of miles we drive helps set our odds of ending up in an emergency room or a morgue.

Cars, though ubiquitous, are oddly invisible: as Dave's words hinted, cars are to Americans as water is to fish. This is due in part to the $20 billion spent annually on advertising, making it difficult to channel surf without landing on a car commercial, many of which suggest that owning a vehicle is as easy as the three-digit figure of the usual monthly loan payment. No single industry has spent more on advertising in the past decade, making the media outlets that rely on that revenue reluctant, one could argue, to spend much time focused on the safety and financial downsides of car ownership, say, or on the power of the auto and oil industries to shape transportation policy. In any case, cultures always tend to normalize for their members what would strike outsiders as deeply exotic, and so we remain remarkably in the dark about how the car system shapes our lives.

As we listened to how people talk about the car, we realized how deeply it has become the vehicle of some core American values about freedom, individuality, progress, family, and opportunity, to name just a few. But we also talked to a multitude of drivers whose experiences indicate that cars subvert those same core values to which they appeal. Take freedom. Although advertising teems with images of cars traversing empty city streets and expansive Western landscapes, of drivers enjoying outings with friends and family, the average American now slogs through a rush hour that has become six hours of logjam through which he or she must navigate to work the extra hours needed to pay for the car. Vehicles now absorb one-fifth or more of many American household budgets, cutting into the freedom to do any number of other things with the income.

How about family? Surveys show, and radio advertisers know, that frequent drivers, who are most heavily exposed to billboards and radio ads, shop more, leaving less for a family-friendly education and a retirement fund. Opportunity? Cars are marketed and purchased with the promise of providing more of this, but the reality is that the sprawl created by a car-centered transit system has stranded the poor in urban centers unable to get out to the suburban ring where most job growth has occurred.

When we began our research in 2006, the United States was well into its greatest automotive binge in history. NASCAR was riding high as the country's number-two spectator sport. The Fast and the Furious franchise was pulling in audiences, and MTV had a hit with Pimp My Ride. Financial credit was flowing freely, allowing Americans to buy roughly 60 million new and used cars and trucks a year; on average, 160,000 Americans each day were walking into dealerships and driving out with vehicles. The average price of a new vehicle had swelled to $25,000; it had become an enormous and luxurious thing, crammed with horsepower, techno-entertainment, and leather upholstery. Cars had become the biggest family purchase after housing.

In fact, housing was being turned into cars in at least one sense: Many homeowners drew on their house equity to buy their vehicles. Loan terms had been extended to as many as seven years, and predatory auto lending had become rampant in poor and working-class neighborhoods. Even today, the average household with two vehicles still bleeds $14,000 a year in car-related costs—and this doesn't include the additional thousands paid in taxes to support the vast U.S. automotive infrastructure, from highway building to oil-drilling subsidies.

Then the Great Recession arrived like a gale wind in late 2007 and early 2008. It left one in six Americans unemployed or underemployed, collapsed home values, and slashed retirement accounts. New-car purchases, which had barely or briefly responded to previous recessions, plunged from 17 million in 2006 to about 9 million in 2009. Repossessions ballooned. More people began driving without insurance. Many Americans decided to leave their cars in the driveway and started taking the bus to work. The house of financial cards—the home equity and the no-down-payment purchases—on which cars and gasoline had come to depend was suddenly painfully visible.

Environmentalists and health advocates rejoiced as rising gas prices prompted Americans to drive 108 billion fewer miles in 2008. Car deaths and emissions dropped. Ridership on public transit rose. It seemed to us that we might have reached a tipping point and that our current relationship with the automobile had become unsustainable.

Many skeptics would disagree, and today, as car sales begin to rise again, they may have a point. History, after all, is on the skeptics' side. We've been through this before. The gas shock of 1973 and other recessions prompted Americans to buy smaller cars and drive less, but the change was short-lived. Americans soon returned to the dealerships and the highway, covering more miles than ever in cars that took ever-larger bites out of their income, time, and health. As one auto-industry consultant told us, "American fascination with big vehicles is here, will always be here, and that's not going to change." Americans, he explained, are very status conscious: "They look at [buying a small car] as a step down. As you moved up in life, you moved to a bigger car."

So is this wishful thinking from an executive who makes his living selling automobiles or harsh realism from someone who truly understands the many psychological, political, and cultural underpinnings of the American car system? It seems to us that today's challenges to the car system are more numerous, stronger, and more persistent than those of earlier times of high gas prices and economic downturn. If Americans are not ready to eliminate cars from their lives, they seem poised for a substantial change in the role cars play in them.

For one thing, many families have simply reached the limits of how much car time—the average is now eighteen-and-a-half hours a week—they can squeeze into their lives. Similarly, cities and states have reached the limit of how many more vehicles they can fit onto existing lanes of their maxed-out highways. Even more important, our current recession has arrived while the country is at war and faces the dire prospect of global warming. Unsure about the future, Americans have grown more cautious in their spending, while the global-warming concern has produced a spike in "green" consciousness. Most carmakers now produce and promote hybrid vehicles, with the Prius a commonplace sight on roads all over the country.

What's more, Americans have become uncomfortably aware of the role that our appetite for oil and gas has played in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because these wars are officially part of our war on terror, many were reluctant to believe back in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq had anything to do with oil. More now say that our involvement in the Middle East is motivated by the desire to keep oil flowing our way. As we were told by one self-described political moderate, "It's clear that ‚ the first Gulf War and the second Gulf War are pretty much—let's cut to the chase—about making sure that the U.S. has access to cheap oil."

The bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler have revealed how car companies sold the American public an irrational exuberance for behemoth vehicles to our individual and systemic detriment. Buyers now approach showrooms with a healthier dose of skepticism about the value of the products on display. Thanks to the public funding of the industry bailout, consumers also return to dealerships as part owners of a couple of auto companies, with a greater stake in the decisions these corporations make.

The Great Recession will slowly abate, but it has taught whole generations a harsh, perhaps permanent lesson about the dangers of household debt and massive government borrowing. Even without these lessons, it will take years for housing prices and retirement funds to recover and again become piggy banks for car purchases. And people have begun—voluntarily as well as through foreclosures and bankruptcy—to abandon the exurbs, the two-hour commute, and the car expenses associated with them, and to consider lifestyles more conducive to walking.

Government, meanwhile, is also responding. The Obama Administration's proposal for new emissions and mileage standards by 2016 is a promising step toward a saner national fleet of cars, and as of last March, $8.4 billion had been allocated for public transit as part of the federal stimulus plan. Local governments, meanwhile, are helping lead the way to an alternative future. Portland, Oregon, for example, is demonstrating how a single metropolis can transform land-use policies and can invest in streetcar and light-rail systems that lead to less driving.

For true change to be sustained, our research suggests, Americans need to expand their understanding of the car's true costs and how these stack up against its benefits. At this point, the nation's technophilia has convinced many Americans that scientific progress will bail us out of our car troubles. And certainly any large-scale move to hybrids or to alternative-energy vehicles will mitigate some of the costs associated with gasoline, including reducing the impetus for resource wars and lessening the environmental impact of carbon-dioxide emissions.

But if we just worry about gasoline, we see only the elephant's trunk. Even if technical progress meant we could fuel our cars with water from a garden hose, we would continue to bear a host of costs. The nation's obesity epidemic arises in good part from choosing to drive instead of to walk, and from the fast food we tank up on while we're on the road. Forty thousand people die each year in the man-made disaster of crashes, and millions live and suffer because they have been disabled in car accidents. This dreadful toll remains high, despite improvements in car safety, in part because we drive so many more miles.

While demanding a better transportation policy from local and federal government is crucial, there are a variety of specific, immediate steps that individuals and families can take to reduce their reliance on the automobile and to lower the real price that they, and all of us, are paying for the car (see "A 12-Step Program for Car Addicts" at left). Just a few small actions by each of our households would have a powerful, positive impact. When gas prices peaked at more than four dollars a gallon in the summer of 2008, for example, Americans drove 12.2 billion fewer miles in just one month than they had a year earlier, an almost 5 percent decline. This gives a glimpse of how much control we have over our driving and what we can accomplish as consumers acting together.

If every car owner in the United States drove just 1,000 fewer miles a year, as a nation we could save more than 100 billion gallons of gasoline in the next decade. If every American family that owns multiple cars owned one fewer, as a nation we could reduce household debt by $1.4 trillion. If both these actions were taken, thousands of lives would be saved and tens of thousands fewer would be injured in car crashes. Lower emissions would increase air quality and reduce deaths from air pollution.

Once we stop looking for more power in our vehicles and look to take some of it back from the car system that so dominates our lives, we will see that a course that has seemed irreversible is within our power to turn around.

Catherine Lutz is the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Family Chair of Anthropology and International Studies. Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former marketer and investment banker, now teaches English in Connecticut. They are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives, which will be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in January.

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November/December 2009