Monday, February 17, 2014

Editorial: The changing American attitude towards driving

Americans are slowly changing their attitudes on driving. As the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age, they naturally spend less time behind the wheel when they give up the commute. Young Millennials are waiting longer to earn their licenses and even when they do, often are choosing not to own a vehicle, instead relying on car sharing services when needed and other forms of transportation otherwise. Those of us that fall between these two categories, fed up with traffic in the urban environments in which we live, have started to take advantage of other options if they are available or even working remotely if our jobs allow it. All of this adds up to fewer miles driven and fewer hours behind the wheel.

Image courtesy of GreaterBostonSuburbs.com
Driving is increasingly seen as being a chore and who can blame Americans for thinking this way. Traffic continues to increase in most metropolitan cities, snarling the roads with an endless stream of cars that just sucks away at our now precious time. As a result of the time suck, people feel it is ever more necessary to try to multi-task in the car to try to eke out efficiency from every last second - eating their meals, personal grooming, even catching up on the morning paper. This then leads to distracted drivers who drive erratically, forcing traffic to flow around them as opposed to them assisting in making traffic flow smoothly. The end result is a tortuous slog every day that seems to be getting worse and worse.

Image courtesy of StreetsBlog.org
And those Millennials, who are increasingly using other means of transit, do still drive sometimes because often the sense of adventure takes one somewhere that cannot be reached by public transit. However, precisely because they do not regularly drive, they are less experienced behind the wheel and thus less confident, taking longer to make critical decisions that are then interpreted as being erratic behavior and increasing the frustration of other drivers around them. To further add to the ire of the other road users, many of these younger drivers also waited to get their driver's licenses in the first place, thus in many cases avoiding the graduated licensing requirements that many states have put in place to allow teen drivers to build increased skills and gain experience in less dangerous and distraction-prone situations. The result is a driver that might be less well prepared for the challenges that they can face and one who might simply spend even less time behind the wheel.

Is this our future? Self driving cars able to make use of every
last inch of real estate for transportation?
(Image courtesy of imcdb.org)
So what is America to do to recognize and adjust to the shift in attitude? Are autonomous vehicles, which many major technology companies and automakers seem to be fascinated with, the answer? Should we regulate and legislate more electronic nannies in cars to keep people focused on the task of driving or at least prevent them from crashing due to their inattention? Is increasing the availability and convenience of public transit and alternative transportation like bicycles going to drive more people to continue to make a shift to living without a car where possible?

There are no easy answers, but taking a comprehensive look at how the relationship between the average American driver and cars is shifting would be a good place to start. Changing our driver education requirements to recognize that more people are waiting until later in life to learn to drive in order to ensure that they too develop the experience and confidence to safely use the roads. Recognizing that there are shifts back towards human-powered transport and adjusting traffic patterns and infrastructure to reduce the chances of conflicts between drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. And understanding that while some Americans have chosen to consider driving a hindrance to their lifestyle, there are still some of us who relish our time behind the wheel.

Tags: automotive, cycling, driver education, driving, Millennials, public transit, transportation