Car Culture

I need to vent.

Today’s post isn’t about politics, or a particular public policy, or (except tangentially) my worries about the environment. It’s about the insanity of what–for lack of a better descriptor–I’ll call America’s “car culture,” and it was triggered by my recent drive from Indianapolis to a beach in South Carolina.

It isn’t as though I haven’t been concerned with driving behaviors I’ve seen locally. We have lived in downtown Indianapolis ever since 1980, and watched as more and more cars have evidently confused residential city streets with racetracks. I’ve lost track of the number of times a car has sped around me, only to come to a stop beside me at the same traffic light. (Do these speed demons think they’re saving time? They aren’t.)

But it was on our recent trip South that I witnessed a seemingly unending parade of drivers engaging in unimaginably reckless behaviors.

Now, honesty compels me to begin this rant with an admission: I have a heavy foot, and when I’m on an Interstate–especially during a very long drive–I can hit speeds of 79 or 80. But during this drive, even when I was going that fast, cars passed me as if I was standing still. Not only that–a number of them were weaving through three lanes of traffic, presumably unable to bear the thought of following some other vehicle. In at least one instance, we were slowed by a major wreck and a number of emergency vehicles involved in removing the injured and clearing the Interstate–I was actually surprised there weren’t more.

Every so often, we passed an electronic sign warning that additional efforts to catch speeders were being deployed, but I saw no evidence of those efforts.

It’s bad enough that America’s car culture contributes so heavily to the pollution driving climate change. It’s bad enough that the constant need to add lanes and reconstruct interchanges consumes untold amounts of our tax dollars, snarls traffic and triggers road rage. It’s close to unforgivable that we allocate far more resources to streets and roads than to mass transit and rail. But those are issues for a different rant.

What I don’t understand is why we don’t deploy available technologies to address an obvious and growing  problem.

When we leave Indiana for the beach by car these days, we take a new toll bridge into Kentucky. We no longer have to stop to throw quarters into little buckets—the time-honored method of paying a toll. These days, we don’t have to slow down or stop–a camera takes a picture of our license plate, and we get a bill in the mail.  Camera technologies have come a long way, and the upfront costs of installing them would easily be repaid by the ticketing they would facilitate. For that matter, if the driving I saw during this recent trip is any indication, we could repave America with the proceeds of ticketing.

I can hear the protests: cameras would invade my privacy! In my view, this is akin to the equally tone-deaf and selfish refusals to be vaccinated. In both cases, refusal clearly endangers others.

A speeding automobile is potentially a deadly weapon–a reality the law recognizes. We allow sobriety checkpoints in order to control impaired driving (an acknowledged deviation from the 4th Amendment); we require drivers’ tests as a condition to allowing people to operate a motor vehicle.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this reluctance to address the danger of speeding automobiles. This is, after all, a country that refuses to impose even the most reasonable controls on lethal weapons. But I do wonder: Where are all those “pro life” people when they might actually do some good?


  1. The fact we are now on F9 (the Fast and Furious movie series) and that automobile advertising has followed along seems to have brought reckless speeding into our already suicidal culture. We can only hope that our next invention is less gas-guzzling and lethal.

  2. Start with the marriage of the auto and oil industries… Millions of stockholders have gotten rich off of this marriage. Driving fast is, in many cases, a form of venting frustration, personal inadequacies, status symbology and a variety of other things.

    Take low-riders… The jacked-up, bouncy, wildly painted vehicles designed and built by, primarily, the Mexican-American community is the modern version of the “Prado” where young men and women in Mexico would walk in circles in the town plazas hoping to attract a mate. This was their version of the prairie chickens in Colorado doing their dance for the same reasons.

    Add to that the backward cap phenomenon. When the low-riding mechanics were working on their cars (circa 1950), they wore caps to keep dirt and grease out of their hair. But the bill of the cap would bump into things as they leaned in under the hood of their cars. So, they turned the cap around. All they had to do was forget to turn the cap back and VOILA! New cultural statement.

    My dear, departed aunt had a husband back in the 1930s and 40s who used to race his motorcycle up and down the main street of their small, New Jersey town. He was a speed demon of great repute… even back then. Can you imagine milk trucks racing down the street in 1938 with bottles clanking. Well, the guy finally met his demise by splattering his P-38 fighter all over the runway right in front of his wife because he went lower and faster than anyone else during an airshow before he was to ship out for Europe in 1944. Speed kills.

    Not to worry, Sheila. The go-fast car culture has been with us since the inception of cars and the freedom they gave humans to travel long distances in a short time. Cars, along with guns are the two most important physical things that define our nation’s culture.

  3. The US needs a coast to coast rail system similar to what Europe has. A system that would handle both short and long distance travel. It’s ridiculous that we keep adding lanes to interstates when rail would be less expensive and have a positive impact on reducing pollution and fatalities. I used to drive to Chicago frequently and always wished there was a viable rail alternative.

    Many would object to the cost of a national rail system even though benefits more than justify the cost.

    The wild card would be getting people to use it. Americans are addicted to cars.

  4. I agree with your statement of the problems involved, but I disagree with part of the solution you suggest. I had to argue at the D.C. Court of Appeals around 2002. A couple of weeks after I got back to Indy, I received a notice in the mail that I was (thereby) ticketed for disregarding a stop light (in whatever formal language the infraction was stated). The person who was with me was surprised at this news. The photo was of the rental car I’d driven. To this day I still say I did not “blow” the light. My options were: 1) Pay the $150 and change (& the ticket would not be reported to insurance) or as Richard Pryor’s character said in “Silver Streak” “Pay the man”; or 2) Pay a lot more than $150 to fly to DC and fight the ticket (& they might have to continue the case…) I paid. The solution might be a nationwide video court to challenge such things, but that removes people from the system. My solution: I no longer rent a car when I fly someplace.

  5. Mr Small, we got a ticket in September 2018 when we got flashed around midnight returning from a U2 concert in Paris France. We had a rental car. It took 5 months to track us down but we paid the fine. I think it was for going about 10km over the speed limit. The fine was @45 euros. They will find you eventually.

    The concert wasn’t that great either. Bono had lost his voice and I think there was a lot of lip syncing. I know this is totally off topic but hopefully anyone thinking about going to one of their concerts will save money by not going. Lol

  6. I’m sure video can be used as a deterrent, but what about GPS – satellite tracking?

    They can cut off your engine if it gets stolen, so I guess they can do all kinds of fun techie stuff. But, don’t insurance companies have a computer to install so you can save money for safe driving?

    I use trackers for hiking and they have amazing precision. We could pay for our infrastructure off the tickets alone.

  7. The most dangerous cars on the road are stolen and being pursued by cops
    A city cop died pursuing such out of his city and county into two other counties. Thus he was praised as a hero. A stupid, dead hero.
    I despise glorification of such pursuits.

  8. Sheila. “America’s car culture contributes so heavily to the pollution driving climate change.”

    At the start of the pandemic highways emptied; gas sales plummeted; the skies were visibly cleaner from outer space; teleworking was embraced by the national workforce; parents didn’t need childcare; many public services were able to continue. All were huge benefits to society.

    But teleworking had to end because revenue had dropped 40% on the Dulles Tollway. Tolls absolutely had to be restored because highway projects, past and future, had counted on that revenue stream.

    Workers have been asked to do their part to “get the economy going” again. Quit teleworking, employ daycare, and resume the 100-mi-per day commute for the common good of the Nation.

  9. The ticketing by mail process produced a bit of humor years ago. A man was photographed speeding and the ticket arrived in the mail accompanied by the photo of his car and license plate. The man promptly wrote out a check for the fine, took a picture of it, and mailed it to the police. A few days later he received a photo from the police of a pair of handcuffs. This time, he mailed the check.

  10. Refreshing, is it not … to rile up the blog with such a compelling emotional broil that is neutral to ranting far right or far left Democrats or Republicans. Everyone enjoys the ‘freedom of the road’ with a clear view of an open ribbon to the farthest horizon. Ever notice a car commercial stuck in traffic? Never heard of! We all are propagandized to drive our car on pristine riverside landscaped by ways alone with no traffic. Wonder if it is like being addicted to pornography relegated to involuntary celibacy by the absurdity of bumper to bumper moving at 5 mph in a 65 speed limit interstate. That can be the perfect petri dish to breed decontextualized rage. Makes me just want to stay home and read Sheila’s blog. ?

  11. I was actually hoping when I saw this headline that you’d be talking about our love of vehicles that are fuel-inefficient. While you do mention this in passing, I think that another aspect of “car culture” is the tendency of many of us to think of a vehicle as a personal statement of superiority. The macho pick-up trucks, Cadillac Escalades, vans, and SUVs of all shapes and sizes are so unnecessary for transportation yet persist. The driver sits high, threatening all the smaller vehicles. While for some people, a large vehicle is needed for a large family, work, or other reasons, most of these vehicles have a single driver in regular use. Part of the car culture says my car is my image and I want it to be impressive. I was behind a person fueling one of these vehicles and complaining that her fill-ups were over $120 and it’s because of Biden. I would think higher gas prices would be a wonderful thing if they wouldn’t only make the oil companies richer and poor people suffer. I was heartened to see that the people of Vancouver are now paying attention to vehicle size and I hope the move to electric vehicles escalates.

  12. My local community relies on revenue from speeders in my subdivision, as well as those who don’t come to a full stop at any of three stop signs on the main street. Take the speeders away and we wouldn’t be able to afford our local government.

    I may be the biggest scofflaw of all of the commenters. I own a flashy car that gets okay mileage, but, since I don’t actually drive a lot any more, I don’t see it as a problem. My foot is heavy, even for a Hoosier, but I’m smart enough to realize that my shiny red convertible is a police magnet, so I’m careful most of the time not to be too far above the speed limit. This is more than likely the last car I will own, so I bought the car I’d dreamt about for 53 years. And yes, I love my car.

  13. For all of you anti-camera and anti-technology people on this blog, Diana and I ran across an amazing system in Scotland. The motorway had cameras just like the toll bridge over the Ohio, but these were installed every few miles just before an exit. Signs made it clear that your speed was being tracked, not instantaneously, but as an calculated average between the sets of cameras.

    If you wanted to speed, there was no way to fool the system other then to pull over before the next set of cameras and wait until your average speed was at or below the speed limit. The entire 50 miles I was on that road ALL of the traffic ran at or just slightly below the speed limit with NO exceptions.

    This same technology could be used in other creative ways. At the public hearings for rebuilding the Indianapolis downtown Interstate inner loop, I have complained that it seems like a fair amount of traffic in the downtown is from trough traffic choosing to drive through the middle of Indianapolis rather than drive around the city on the 465 loop. This same technology could be used to create a through toll. If you passed the outer loop on I65 or I70 inbound and then passed the outer loop again X minutes later, then you would get charged with a toll for using the premium route through the middle of the city. This could be used to control the volume of traffic, especially trucks, traveling through the middle of the city. Of course there is no political will for anything like this, since the Republican controlled state government is strongly anti-city and supposedly pro-business.

  14. I belong to a Neighborhood Blog here in NW Marion County. Many complaints about speeders, not just 5MPH over the speed limit. Also people blowing through stop signs, speeding in school zones, residential areas and in general reckless driving. They all want to know where are the Police.

    I gather 38th Street is in particular is rather dangerous.

  15. If you concern is focused on (particularly Indiana’s) shoddy road quality, the damage is caused by semi traffic/heavy loads not really cars. If the US had a good rail system we would have better quality roads and less traffic on them – two birds, one stone!

    To throw in my own ticket camera story, I once sold a car and the new owner didn’t get it registered in his name very quickly. When he didn’t pay a toll/used an EZ Pass lane without the EZ Pass, the automated system caught the license plate and send the bill to me since I was still the registered owner. I never did pay that, even though it was kind of a silly “principled” stand to make. I may not be allowed to drive in Pennsylvania anymore for all I know.

  16. I am absolutely shocked and amazed that “Sheila’s Crew” have not, so far, mentioned the increase in speeding, reckless driving, running stop signs, etc. has paralleled the rise of “freedom to do what I want”.

    Our local paper (we still have one) did an in-depth investigation of speeding:

    Besides the clear data linking extreme speeding to death, among the most shocking findings was that most extreme speeders get off in court. I think this is likely everywhere.

    Let’s see, if we cracked down by having more cops/highway patrols who actually stopped people, and the fines were high and people lost their licenses…more jobs, more money to government, fewer deaths….hmmm downside??

    As I have told here before…in AU (and NZ, likely)…virtually no one goes more than 5 MPH over the limit and you rarely see tail gaiting, reckless driving, etc. WITHOUT many cops. As was explained to me, it is the “matey” culture – we are all mates and take care of each other. Of course, “American Exceptionalism” is the opposite – all ME…

    End of rant….

  17. Well it is not just our Autos that are having a spate of bad actors:

    One in five flight attendants endured a ‘physical incident’ as union demands action.
    A union survey supports what airlines and federal officials have been saying: there has been a surge in unruly passengers this year, who sometimes become violent.

    The most common trigger is passengers who refuse to follow the federal requirement that they wear face masks during flights, according to the survey by the Association of Flight Attendants. Alcohol is the next largest factor, with flight delays also playing a role, according to the union.

    Airlines have banned a few thousand people for the duration of the mask rule, and the Federal Aviation Administration has announced proposed fines against dozens of people. But union president Sara Nelson said more passengers should face criminal prosecution.

    “When people are facing jail time for acting out on a plane, we suddenly see some sobering up, and we need some sobering up,” said Sara Nelson, the union’s president.

    I did watch an amusing video on U-Tube. A woman was screaming in an airport at the ticket counter, every third or fourth word was some variation of the “F Word”. Mr. Helpful asked the screamer what was wrong. She said she was on the “No Fly List” and could not buy a ticket. She said in so many words again interspersed with the “F Word” – How am I supposed to get home.??

    Mr Helpful suggested she speak with a Supervisor- She said she did and the Supervisor said No Ticket For You. The she got real loud and said the Supervisor called me a “Karen”.

  18. Bob Kennedy. If Indiana still had its 1926 Interurban system we would see Hoosiers’ purported “love affair with automobiles” is an adaptation to a lack of transportation options.

    Just as with D.C’s Metro subway, we would see in Indiana that housing located walking distance from an Interurban station would command double the price of a house that required an automobile for local transportation.

    1926 Indiana Interurban Map:

  19. I have been driving 4 cylinder engines since the mid 70’s with a stick shift. I did that till 2005 when I got a 4 year old Prius. It’s the first model and is now 20 years old. I am going to buy another Prius in August. All my cars except one were used cars. ( It’s called recycling.) I would buy an electric car but they don’t have the charging infrastructure in place. I am pushing 70, and this will be the last car I purchase.

    Our society is highly individualistic which has led to an extreme bias against mass transit. We like our independent driving, do we not? Eisenhower decided to support the auto industry more than passenger trains. In Europe transportation for us visitors is simplified by their mass transit systems.

    When I worked on a rehab unit for permanently disabled people i.e. paraplegics, I was told that most of them were young men who had recklessly driven fast or dived without checking the depth of the water first. When we are young, we tend to believe we are invincible. I would guess, Shiela, that many of those reckless drivers were young men although I suspect young women are catching up.

    Granted, America is a huge country. But if America had the political will, we could create a fast rail system that was the envy of even China. We could lead the way. We won’t. We like our cars too much, yours truly included.

    Now that I am retired, I drive less. And I find myself thankful that after this car purchase, I won’t have to ever buy a car again. Tolkien stated that the combustible engine would be the ruin of civilization. Truth is, it is ruining the ecosystems of Mother Earth. How could he be so prophetic?

  20. I don’t say this often, but I 100% agree with Mark Small.

    It is a bedrock principle of our legal system that we have a right to cross-examine our accuser. If a police officer gives us a ticket for speeding, the prosecution has to call the police officer and have that person testify to the facts of what he/she witnessed. As the accused, we have the right to cross examine the officer. Believe it or not, sometimes the officer gets the facts wrong.

    So how is my constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses going to work when the “witness” is a camera? Basically you’re going to be assumed to be guilty and good luck fighting the system after that. The camera is the judge, jury and executioner…okay, hopefully they won’t execute you for the alleged offense.

    I don’t think Sheila has completely thought this through. Some jurisdictions already have red light cameras. Usually this is contracted out to a private company to install the cameras and keep a portion of the revenue, sort of like Indy does with its parking meters. The private company determines that it can shorten the time for a car to clear an intersection by a few milliseconds a and issue more tickets and make a lot more money. They do it.

    In theory, the government entity will monitor the contract and force the private company to be fair to its citizens. But if there is one thing we’ve learned about privatization it is that our political leaders (perhaps plied by campaign contributions and private sector job opportunities) do not monitor or enforce compliance with privatization contracts. And most of these contracts are long term, 20, 30 years, etc. (Indy’s parking meter contract is 50 years long!) So the private company has no worries that it might be replaced by another company.

    I can’t imagine that the ACLU would support laws in which people will be assumed guilty and have no right to cross examine the accuser in court.

    I’m no spring chicken either. Unlike Sheila though I don’t notice people driving any more recklessly or faster than they were 20 years ago. My pet peeve is land pollution. Our highways and streets are littered with trash and the situation seems to be getting a lot worse. Why people feel compelled to throw trash out their windows when ever business establishment you pull up to has a trash can sitting in front of it, perplexes me.

  21. Robin Riebsomer “Tolkien stated that the combustible engine would be the ruin of civilization.”

    Julia Louise née Langdon was the first person in DC to own an automobile. In 1897 she bought an original Columbia Electric. The Smithsonian Museum in DC owns a Columbia Electric car, but it does not display it.

    In a January 11, 1914 NY Times interview, Henry Ford was quoted as saying he and Edison planned to introduce an electric car in 1915.

    Something changed the minds of Ford and Edison; the Ford electric car was not introduced in 1915.

    Ford’s renewed focus on internal combustion engines may have been influenced by the same powerful force to which Tolkien alluded.

  22. I wish America would seriously look at high speed rail. I would love to be able to travel to NYC or DC without having to stop at a hundred places along the way as Amtrak does. I know we need those high number of stops for many people, but I think there are any number of folks who would love to travel to a destination quickly and peacefully on a “Bullet-train” that connects major hubs. Air travel hardly saves one time anymore.
    I live near the South Carolina beach Sheila referenced and I wondered if she was appalled by the numbers of ridiculously huge pick-up trucks that are jacked up so high one would need a ladder to get into that are on the road here? Those things are everywhere here and it would seem that noise ordinances in towns and cities also no longer matter either since these behemoths also seem to have no mufflers.
    Enjoy the summer!!

  23. Why should I have a muffler? It is my right and freedom. It is part of my personal brand and the team I belong to and worship. I love MY America 2021 and announce it proudly. Get some earplugs and get over it!

  24. I agree completely. There is zero political will to make roads safer. My parents were almost killed by a woman who was driving without a license. She had never had one. I contacted the prosecutor’s office about several crimes he could charge her with. (There was more to the story than a lack of a license.) The prosecutor refused to charge her with a single infraction, even. So since that time, I have let people know that a license isn’t required to drive in Harrison County, Indiana. Don’t sweat it.

  25. I love trains. But to think we can have a country in which trains would be a primary method of transportation is pie-in-the-sky stuff. Many parts of the United States are lightly populated. It costs a fortune to run trains through those areas because the passenger load is light and the cost of maintaining the tracks is highly expensive. Then you have the problem that trains are geographically fixed. They can’t adjust to changing needs. Trains work well where there is population density, places like northeast United States (Boston, Baltimore, New York City, Washington, D.C, etc.)

    Again, I love trains. But you could spend penny of the federal budget on expanding train service and still not even come close to having a system that would provide sufficient transportation options for most people.

  26. Where to start to earn the ire of the commenters here – sorry Sheila, we have to disagree sometimes 8)>

    Here is the syllogism as it began
    Drunk drivers are dangerous
    Drunk drivers speed
    Therefore speeding drivers are dangerous

    Context is important – I grew up in Detroit, learned to drive on 12th Street
    – no parking during rush hour, so five lanes, except people parked, double parked, and sometimes stopped if they saw a friend coming out of a store – traffic moved fast and there were no accidents
    I drive fast and I know how to weave through traffic — except where I live – many dogs and children where I live, so I don’t go over 15 mph, usually slower and sometimes a lot slower
    Context matters

    Also think of this – growing up, when they wanted to reduce holiday weekend fatalities the answer was high visibility of police – then the police found the drunks – the rest of the time the cops hide in the bushes because it raises revenue

    116th Street in Carmel has been a speed trap for years – then there was always Ferndale, MI
    , a suburb north of Detroit – as the 8-lane, 55 mph Woodward Avenue crosses 8 Mile road on an over pass, it comes out to Ferndale, speed limit 25 mph – lots of revenue

    We have known for decades that talking on a phone while driving is very dangerous – even hands free – MRI and PET scan studies – or if you like, the Mythbusters who compared it to driving while drunk, but today’s drivers, well if mom and dad can talk, I’ll text – right – we never really wanted to stop talking on the phone – it became distracted driving
    (an aside – when I took drivers ed, the last class took us on the Detroit expressways – fast moving traffic – with the radio cranked up, tuned to a rock station – per the instructor, if you can’t handle the expressway with loud music in the background, you probably should stay off)

    There are annoying drivers who think they are at the Indy 500, and people who cut other people off, but speeding, in and of itself, is a the least dangerous of the lot

    Also, Cameras, Radar, etc – it’s about the revenue, sorry

    Also – control the speed electronically – imagine driving on College (several years back) rush hour – a big Cadillac Escalade decides to change lanes — into my little roadster – a car is on my tail, but there is room ahead – I hit the gas and swerved and all was well

    Oh, but if there is an electronic device that prevents those terrible fast accelerations – so I am in the right, while I lie in the hospital — except they the Caddy driver will hire a lawyer and say that I hit him.

    Still, I have never defined myself by the car I drive, the speed I obtained, or the decibels of my engine — so says the son of a man who started life as an auto mechanic.

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