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Infatuated with our cars

Alan Braunholtz

It’s hard not to feel a little bit smug at the gas stations these days.

One of the few advantages of owning a car manufactured in the mpg conscious 1980s is the ability to arrive after, fill up and then leave before the gargantuan SUV that squats bug like, proboscis inserted in pump, happily bleeding its owner’s wallet dry.

It’s a dumb feeling. Anyone who can afford a vehicle worth 20 to 30 times mine doesn’t need to worry about an extra 20 cents a gallon.



If for reasons of insecurity, gullibility and the power of suggestion of billions of dollars in advertising you’ve signed up to a car you can’t afford and these 20 cents will break you, then you’re “car poor” and it’s a mercy killing.

Get back in a Hyundai where you belong. With payments that allow you the discretionary income needed to enjoy life, it still gets you from A to B.



I always thought the term “car poor” meant, well, having a poor car. Apparently not; it’s when the costs of your car impinge on your lifestyle. Not me. Aspects of my car may impinge on my lifestyle, but not its costs.

The rationale behind a power drill is holes. A car’s job is to go from A to B (except for motor sports enthusiasts, of course, who go around and around). Our culture is so obsessed with cars that this is overshadowed by image and desired personal lifestyle statements.

In a life that may not be following our adolescent expectations (rock star, secret agent, Nobel Prize-winning scientist, powerful businessman answering to no one, etc], vehicular choice is a chance to assert some identity, control and express the real me.



That’s what the ads promote anyway with gorgeous lifestyle couples, youthful parties and adventure sports often more prominent than the cars themselves. It’s understandable, since most cars in a class are all standard except for the badge. “The new Audi features a slightly more oval radiator grill because Audi owners are slightly different people!” isn’t the type of ad you see too often.

This explains part of the popularity of pickups and SUVs. These vehicles are actually visually distinctive. The new Mini and Toyota Prius also make instantly noticeable statements contributing in part to their growing popularity.

While a battered pickup is a building man’s staple, how many pristine trucks do you see that have anything in the back that couldn’t fit in a hatchback? This includes dogs that fall or jump off trucks far more than their image-stricken owners realize. Even at building sites the “supe” often has the biggest (and cleanest) truck while the actual carpenter tools around in a Nissan Stanza.

There is a song by the Bottle Rockets that goes “If a thousand dollar car was worth a damn, why would anyone spend 10 grand?” They may have a point, but it also applies the other way. If a $10,000 car is worth a damn, why would anyone spend 40 grand?

The strange thing is this notion of a car as a fashion accessory. Spend 40 grand to impress strangers you will never meet in person. Perhaps this anonymity is the point. The car and its advertised image are taken at face value without you getting in the way. For a few minutes every day you can pretend to be what you bought.

That could explain some driving styles. It’s our only chance to express, borrowing the engine’s power some repressed identity crisis. Risking one’s life weaving around so you can be 10 seconds ahead when braking harder for the stop sign says very little about your life. It’s apparently worth the 10 seconds, though.

I wonder if it’s different in a smaller town where everyone is known as a person first and your car is secondary. Pleasant John in a Ferrari is just “lucky John,” and a jerk is a jerk no matter what car they’re in.

You can put all the above down to jealousy as when NPR appeals for derelict cars, I feel the radio is talking directly to me. I reassure my car, though. I’ve become sentimentally attached and it will live out its life with me. For reasons of sanity, I try not to link myself to my car’s image or performance, I’m me and it’s a car.

Now if I could remove any anger at being tail-gated, I’d be a stress-free driver with nothing to prove. Unfortunately, now and then my bumper sticker should read: “This is justified self righteousness, NOT road rage!”

If we could treat cars as tools instead of part of us, then we could see them for what they are, warts and all. About 120 people are killed every day in car accidents or 43,800 per year with 3 million injured. Cars are the major cause of death for children aged 5-14 in New York.

This ongoing carnage gets little of the publicity or reaction that trains, planes or wars demand. A violent death is always tragic for those left behind. Cars have a huge cost to society in money, land, pollution and life. It’s estimated that 1million wild animals (not including insects) are killed per day.

Cars are incredibly useful and often very fun in the America we’ve built around them but perhaps more a necessary evil than something we celebrate without thought.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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