Francis Curzon, born in 1884 and later named the fifth Earl Howe, loved a souped-up Bugatti. And he loved to drive fast. He was famous for his “great skill and daring” on the racetrack, and also, eventually, for crashing into pedestrians—knocking down a boy in Belfast, Northern Ireland; slamming into a horse-drawn cart and killing a peasant in Pesaro, Italy.
These incidents (and 10 more) were recounted in a 1947 polemic by J. S. Dean, chair of the Pedestrians’ Association in England. Dean took particular issue with an assertion the earl had once made that the “recklessness” of pedestrians was the main safety problem on Britain’s roads. People who drive cars, Dean pointed out, do consider themselves to be “pedestrians” in other situations—that is, when they themselves are walking—and they agree that safety laws are important. Still, no matter what they may say, they continue to do whatever they want. Dean asked: “What are we to do with these people with their split minds?”
If the term had been available to him, he might have used the pejorative car brain to describe the conundrum he was observing. In the past five years or so, the term has become a common joke in left-leaning online spaces devoted to public transportation and urban planning, including the Facebook group “New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens.” Car brain also appears daily in the even more explicit Reddit forum r/fuckcars (404,000 members). It describes both a state of mind (“you’re car-brained”) and a type of person (“she is a car brain”). Obviously, the term is rude and very smug—in the same vein as the guys who wear one less car T-shirts while riding their bike. But there is also something true about it: Reason is failing in the face of the majestic automobile. People make excuses for cars and remain devoted to them, despite the incontrovertible evidence that they’re extremely dangerous.
This is an unresolvable tension of life in the United States. It’s been that way as long as there have been cars to drive and crash, and it’s especially notable now. An estimated 46,270 people were killed by cars last year. In 2019, deaths numbered 39,107. Car deaths drastically started to spike in 2020, a phenomenon that at first some ascribed to one of the many riddling consequences of the pandemic. Americans were driving much less than usual in the early days of COVID, but those who did take their cars out were found to be driving more recklessly and even faster than they were before, perhaps because everyone was simply more anxious, or perhaps because the roads were more open and people felt free to speed, or perhaps the threat of a deadly virus made other threats seem less consequential. Those explanations became less convincing, however, as pandemic restrictions faded yet car fatalities continued to rise. The number of people killed by cars in 2022 is 9 percent higher than in 2020.
Of course, one problem with these numbers is the simple fact that cars are necessary. Americans have to get places, and in much of the country there is no other way to do that. Sometimes, becoming “car-brained” is just what you have to do to get through the day without constant dread. I grew up in a rural area, and was happily car-brained as I commuted to my job at the mall. Now I’ve been living in New York City for the better part of a decade and am rarely in a car. I find myself acutely terrified by the idea; I feel sharp, pit-in-the-stomach anxiety whenever a phone call to a family member produces the knowledge that they will soon be driving somewhere. Yet I still love cars. I plan imaginary road trips as I fall asleep. I sigh with envy when I see someone pull into a Wegmans parking lot. I used to have a red Hyundai Elantra; when I say Hyundai Elantra, I say it like I am saying the name of the one who got away.
A new study attempts to model the confusion I’m feeling. Co-authored by Ian Walker, an environmental-psychology professor at Swansea University, in Wales, the preprint is titled “Motonormativity: How Social Norms Hide a Major Public Health Hazard.” It was based on survey data collected in the U.K., but nonetheless has some relevance: Walker and his team created pairs of questions designed to suss out the existence of a pro-car bias in society. The questions range from clever to somewhat chin-scratching. For instance, should people smoke cigarettes in highly populated areas where other people would have to breathe in the smoke? Forty-eight percent of respondents strongly agreed that they should not. Should people drive cars in highly populated areas where other people would have to breathe in the exhaust fumes? Only 4 percent strongly agreed that they should not. If you leave your car in the street and it gets stolen, is it your fault? Eighty-seven percent said no. If you leave anything else in the street and it gets stolen, is that your fault? Forty percent said yes.