Automobile Trauma is Just as Valid as Other Forms of Trauma

Years ago I had a girlfriend who was terrified of automobiles. Whenever we would drive anywhere, she would grip the handles in terror. A few times she would even break down in tears if someone cut us off or I had to hit the brakes too hard. She would sometimes chant to herself “it’s perfectly fine. We’re safe. It’s all safe. This is all perfectly safe.” It recurred a few times where we would need to drive somewhere and she would have a panic attack, then she would call herself things like “crazy”, “stupid”, or “scaredy cat”.

I kept my mouth shut for a long time as I was scared of making things worse.

Eventually we got into a real conversation about it, that went something similar to this:

“I know I’m irrational,” she said. “I try to tell myself that I’m giving up my life, my freedom over this irrational fear. I’m keeping my son locked at home. He’s not getting the social interaction he needs. Neither of us ever go anywhere. We’re just locked in this apartment complex due to my irrational fear. I keep telling myself it’s irrational, that I have nothing to fear but no matter what I do the terror just overwhelmes me.”

So I finally decided to open up about my feelings. It was a big risk but I decided to have faith that the truth would help set us free.

“Stop calling yourself irrational,” I said. “That’s not going to help you. You’re not irrational.”

“What else would you call me? I’m giving up my freedom and my son’s life over this insane fear of automobiles. How is that rational?”

“Because cars are dangerous just like you think,” I said. “You know my friend John who has been in months of physical therapy after his car accident–except it wasn’t an accident. It was a murder attempt by a psycho who had just gotten out of prison who never could have gotten a gun but for some reason the state had no problem giving a driver’s license to. John’s legs were crushed. Three people died in that murder attempt. And this came not long after one of their friends was crushed between two cars. She doesn’t even remember she was so traumatized. She just woke up in the hospital and they told her she’d crashed her car. Stories like this are everywhere. There’s a customer at work who is a complete bitch. Treats us all like garbage. I found out the other day she used to be a wonderful, caring person until she got a concussion in a car accident.”

“I don’t think you’re me helping right now,” she said.

But I continued anyway. “You know what John said to me the other day? He says ‘I can’t wait til I can drive again.’ He saw three people die that day and hasn’t been able to use his legs but what he misses most is the very thing that did this to him. John is the irrational one. Our car culture is irrational. You are not irrational. I just got back from Tom’s place a few months ago. There was one night he came home screaming because his girlfriend tried to murder him with her car. When I took my driver’s test when I was sixteen, I messed up on practically every portion of it. I was humiliated, hanging my head in shame but then I found out I got an 89% and passed. I was horrified. There’s a lot of people who fail that test the first time. What are they doing to fail a driver’s test, running people over?”

“You’re making me even more scared,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “But I think you need to hear this anyway. You need to accept that you are the sane and correct one when it comes to automobiles. Everyone else, including me, is crazy. Did you know there are more guns in the United States than there are cars? And yet cars kill almost twice as many people as guns. Cars are twice as deadly as the thing specifically designed to be deadly. Then you’ve got unbelievable envirnomental harm. Then you’ve got predatory auto loans. I’ve known people who threw away their whole financial future for a vroom vroom death machine. And crime. If a gun is used in a crime everyone blames the gun but cars are used in all sorts of crime and no one cares. Without cars it would be virtually impossible to kidnap someone or rob a store. Plus the social separation that cars force us into. If we based our society on trains and public transport we would be meeting our neighbors and have tighter-knit communities.”

“I didn’t know you felt this way,” she said. “I’ve been hiding my feelings because I didn’t want to judge you for driving. I’m just disgusted and horrified by the car culture. It’s sociopathic for our society to celebrate machines that cause this much suffering and death.”

But even that didn’t stop my rant. “Then there’s the people who are all gung-ho about equality and inclusivity and will get upset over a single bakery that refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding but they go out and pay fifteen grand for a car, supporting an industry that inherently excludes half the popuulation. Old people can’t drive. Young people, disabled people, people who can’t afford a car, and people like you. All of you are excluded from basic transportation, which means you’re excluded from a huge number of employment options.”

“So how can you live with yourself driving a car when you know all this stuff?” She asked. “You just get in your car and drive to the store and just accept that you could hit a small child and drag her down the street. You’re just okay with that?”

“I don’t have a good answer for that,” I said. “I guess, yeah. I’m kind of a sociopath like everyone else. I just accept that something truly horrible could happen and I go ahead and do it anyway. I try to be as safe as possible, but yeah. You have to go on with your life. You have to accept the reality of the situation, but you also need to keep going. Staying locked at home because you’re scared of what’s out there is no way to live. Sometimes you just need to accept that death and suffering might occur. It’s really the only choice we have.”

We talked for quite a while about this, and you’d think I had made a mistake by saying all these things, that her fears simply would have gotten bigger, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Now that she felt comfortable talking about it and stopped lying to herself, her panic attacks seemed to become milder and eventually driving with her felt almost normal.

I moved to Seattle a couple years later and deliberately lived in places with easy access to public transportation. I walked most places. I organized my life so that I only needed to drive my car once or twice a month. However, this wasn’t out of fear. It was out of a sense of moral obligation.

So one day when I did need to drive, I absently noticed the car behind me was following too close. Then I suddenly had to hit my brakes as the car in front of me had made a sudden stop. It wasn’t a serious situation. I actually could have stopped even harder and I was still able to stop a short distance behind the car in front of me.

But the car behind me slammed into me, wrapping the front of his vehicle around the back of mine. We pulled into a parking lot to asess the damage. His car was nearly totalled. My car barely had a scratch on it. It was weird. We had only been going maybe 30 miles per hour but the whole front of his car was crushed.

We talked. But the more we talked, the more surreal the situtaion became. Over and over he kept saying, “I don’t understand how this happened.” Like a deer in the headlights.

I would say something like, “Basic physics. You were following too close.”

“Yeah, but that can’t be the problem because that’s how close I always follow. I don’t understand. I just don’t get it.”

“You ever heard of the 2 second rule?”

“Huh? What? 2 second rule? What’s that?”

I thought to myself, someone gave this guy a driver’s license. Someone thought this guy who doesn’t understand basic physics and never heard of the 2 second rule, should be allowed to command this giant chunk of metal with little to no oversight.

That’s when things started to click. That’s when I understood what my girlfirend was talking about. That’s when the fear started to kick in.

It started to really sink in how tailgating on the road is literally a death threat. People attempt to scare the people in front of them to get them to go faster or move out of the way. That is on the same level as pointing a gun at someone and demanding to cut in line. And yes, I say that knowing what it feels like to have a gun pointed in my face.

Virtually every time I go driving, someone knowingly threatens to kill me. It happens to all of us practically every time we go out. Just think about that for a second. Why are we as a society okay with this?

Then I moved to Pittsburgh and things got much worse. Again, I set up my life to minimize driving as much as possible. But in the first year I was here, I twice had to leap out of the way of a vehicle gunning through a crosswalk. I saw a pregnant woman push a baby carriage into the middle of a 35 mile per hour highway without bothering to look first. I saw a man and a pregnant woman trying to cross in the middle of the street so they sent a small child out first to stop traffic for them. I saw cops run red lights. I saw people run red lights in front of cops.

Moving from Seattle to Pittsburgh was truly a shock. I thought people had been unsafe before. Nothing could have prepared me for the irresponsible vehicular behavior of Pittsburghers. Back in Seattle, people would start judging you if you went more than fifteen miles over the speed limit or ran a single red light. Here it’s acceptable to drive double the speed limit. No one says a word about it.

I heard a story from a co-worker who once saw a group of teenagers at a party pin a guy down so that someone could run over his head with a truck. He thinks they would have gone through with it too if a neighbor hadn’t come out to yell at them. I also heard from a guy who claimed he had been in over 35 car accidents, all of them as a passenger. “I’m never getting behind the wheel,” he told me. “Those things are death traps.”

Then I lost an aunt and then an uncle within about a year, to two separate car accidents. People drove cars to the funerals. I doubt any of them noted the irony in that, like packing heat to the funeral of someone who died of a gunshot.

When COVID hit I watched my roommate and so many others fall into a state of extreme fear that deeply impacted their and my mental health. But I felt almost no fear of COVID. I soon realized that how most people feel about cars is how I feel about diseases: I recognize logically that they are real. I know I can catch one and that I could die. I have a good immune system but I’m not invincible. But I have almost no fear of any disease. Diseases are just a fact of life that for some reason I’ve learned to accept. I do what’s reasonable to stay safe but they don’t scare me, regardless of how real I know they are.

Early in the pandemic I needed to go to the store. It was going to be one of the first times either of us had contact with anyone. My roommate wanted me to drive to avoid exposure to COVID. I felt safer riding the train like I normally did. I would have been masked and there would have been no more than two or three people on the train and I only needed to ride four stops. It seemed safer than driving, especially if I placed importance on managing my own stress.

My roommate did not agree. He was baffled and seemed scared by my decision. He saw me as irrational, wondering how safe I could possibly be if I was actually more afraid of cars than COVID. I tried to tell him about my experiences, about how I’d just lost two family members to cars, but he just didn’t understand.

So we compromised and I agreed to walk the whole distance. It was a 2 hour walk each way but what I hadn’t realized was the first half had no sidewalks. I had to walk right on the edge of the road, cars whizzing by me at 45 miles per hour. The wind from the trucks nearly knocked me over a couple times.

After an hour of this I finally made it to a sidewalk. I was angry. Angry at society. I was mad at the whole situation, but especially mad at Pittsburgh drivers who feel entitled to drive fifteen miles over the speed limit with a pedestrian just a foot from their side mirrors.

So just as I reached the safety of the sidewalk, I thought to myself, right now someone is driving 85 in a 55 mile zone, just a few feet from the car in front of them, as they stew in anger about how someone at the grocery store didn’t wear a mask.

As all this car-related anger was coursing through me, I looked up and saw something I will never forget.

Across the street a woman was sitting on the curb. She was confused and scared. Her face was covered in blood. She kept trying to stand, but two men stood above her, forcing her to stay down. “Ma’am, please don’t get up,” they were saying. “You were in an accident and have a concussion. Paramedics are on their way. Please stay seated.”

Her arm was in a sling. It’s hard not to assume she had injured it in a previous car accident.

I looked to their right to see a car-sized hole in the cinder-block wall of their business. Completely inside the building was her car, covered in rubble. The dust was still settling.

I am very much an atheist but moments like this are still intense and spiritual for me. Coincidences like this are hard even for me to ignore. It felt like God Himself was speaking to me through this incident, telling me, no Kalin. You are not irrational. You are the sane one. If I want to consider myself a good person, I must do everything I reasonably can to fight back against the automobile culture.

I watched for minutes from across the street, figuring I would just confuse and scare her more if I tried to help. She kept trying to get up. She kept looking around like she had no idea what was happening or where she was.

And I thought to myself, I bet she’s gonna be driving again within a week.

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