In America, it has long been taboo to pay critical attention to automobiles’ centrality in our lives. It remains a very effective and important taboo.
Witness “The Toll of America’s Obesity,” an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. In it, a pediatrician and an economist, both from Harvard, review the basic facts about the continuing escalation of obesity rates and burdens in the United States. In the author’s view, obesity is a “diet-related disease.”
And, indeed, so it is.
But can anybody think of another reason why obesity has been relentlessly worsening across recent decades? Might it have anything to do with the continuing automobilization of our lifespaces? Might worsening fatness in America also be caused by our ever-deepening, never-so-much-as-mentioned subjection to mandatory cars-first transportation policies and outcomes?
The question answers itself, yet remains utterly out-of-bounds. This is true even on the political left, which has never quite summoned the chutzpah to take the first step toward transcending prevailing ideology/taboo. That first step would be a serious class analysis of transportation in the USA.
Along with bogus history, the overclass pushers of cars-first transportation constantly insist that cars are freedom machines and that we all love them, end of story, without qualification.
In reality, researchers are finding that routine driving is highly stressful, and brings frequent exposure to spikes of stress comparable to those generated in extreme sports (and presumably the onset of major life crises):
MIT designed a series of experiments that measure stress and frustration during real-world driving tasks, which saw volunteers put behind the wheel and wired up to computers with psychological sensors plus face- and body-tracking technologies. GPS was used to track the vehicle’s location and speed while in-cabin cameras monitored the driver’s facial expressions and his or her view through the windshield.
To put the collected data into perspective, it was compared with other routine and not-so-routine tasks. “In addition to daily driving conditions, we are measuring stress levels under a variety of daily activities: at home, in the office, while having breakfast or attending a lecture at MIT. We found that certain driving situations can be one of the most stressful activities in our lives,” said Kael Greco, project leader, MIT SENSEable City Laboratory.
One of the biggest surprises came when the stress levels of driving were compared to those generated from partaking in extreme sports. “The data we received is fascinating. One study showed that getting side swiped by an oncoming car can be almost as stressful as jumping out of a plane,” said Filip Brabec, director of product management, Audi of America.
Surprisingly, this research is actually being publicized by Volkwagen’s Audi subsidiary, no doubt in the hope of making itself look like the bleeding edge. Of course, no amount of engineering is going to take the inherent stress out of operating an independently steered metal box at high speeds across the paths of thousands of other such operators.
In any event, this useful video shows the elevated baseline stress level of driving a car in America. Watch for the graph: