On Driving Drunk: Bloody Idiot

In the terrible, often carefully hidden, mental category of ‘things I have done in the past that I am not proud of, and indeed ashamed of,’ my driving drunk–on many occasions–must take dubious pride of place.

I learned to drive as a teenager, and often drove during my college years–through New Delhi’s even-then chaotic roads–borrowing our family car from my mother. These were short trips, and I did not ever, it seems, drive to and from a party where alcohol was consumed. Matters changed once I moved to the US for graduate school.

Shortly after I secured myself my first teaching and research assistantship, I decided the time had come to buy a second-hand car for commuting. I bought a Toyota Corolla, and used it to drive to campus, to my classes and my work at a campus research lab. I also used it to drive back home after an evening spent drinking in pubs–either on or off campus.

I was not a light drinker (international students were notoriously prone to heavy drinking.) I drank beer by the pitcher; I liked to keep drinking till I could tell the alcohol had changed my perception of myself, the people I was surrounded by, the world I lived in, my take on states of affairs around me. That is, I drank till I was good and drunk. As I continued to drink, I would discover the wisdom of the old adage, ‘you don’t buy beer, you rent it.’ And then, when I was done drinking–in all probability, because I had run out of money, or because the campus pub was closing, or because I had become ravenously hungry–I would stagger out, head for the parking lot, get into my car, and drive home.

This pattern continued after I began working at Bell Laboratories in Middletown, New Jersey. I drove thirty miles each way to work–in a Toyota pick-up truck–and often went out for drinks after work with my colleagues. We drank beer for hours, and sometimes closed out the night with a whisky or two. We snacked during our drinking–something I did not do in my graduate school days–but there was no doubt that our BAC was still alarmingly high when we left to go home.

I never got pulled over; my only ticket for speeding came when I was stone cold sober. I never ran across a DWI check on a local road. I got lucky, very lucky. But I flirted with death and negligent homicide nevertheless. Two horrifying recollections from that period: on one occasion, I drove into the divider on a state route, badly damaging my front tires; somehow, I managed to pull the car to the side of the road, walk to a pay phone, and call a tow truck before a police car showed up. On another, I woke up in the morning, unable to remember where I had parked my car.

I do not know why so many of ‘us’ drove drunk. We were young and male, and that had something to do with it. Bad things happened to other people, not to us; and besides, we knew what we were doing. Or so we thought. Drunk driving was not approved of by many around us; but we forgot about that social norm once we were three sheets to the wind. One of us got busted for drunk driving, and lost his license; he was a repeat offender. We clucked our tongues and went right on driving drunk. Sometimes, I would chastise myself and resolve not to do it again. But I think I broke down all too often.

Shortly before I quit my job and went back to graduate school, I sold my truck. Thanks to insurance hassles, I was sick of driving that damn thing. And I was going to go live in New York City; I did not need a car. From that point on, a night of drinking would end with me in a subway car, or, when I could afford it, a cab. And when I didn’t drive, the horror of what I had done in the days when I drove drunk sank in.

But nothing quite reminded me of the distance I had come and of the catastrophes I had been singularly fortunate in avoiding like a Brooklyn College student’s thesis, written on the topic of New York State’s efforts to combat drunk driving–through a combination of laws, market pressure, and social norms. She was writing it in memory of her uncle, killed by a drunk driver on a highway. Sitting in my office, talking to her as she struggled to maintain her composure while she explained the impact of that tragedy on her father, her family, her cousins, I confessed to having been a drunk driver in my past, even as I could not look her in the eyes.

Never again.

Note: The title of this post is derived from an Australian anti-drunk driving campaign slogan: If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot.

The Lost Art Of Navigation And The Making Of New Selves

Giving, and following, driving directions was an art. A cartographic communication, conveyed and conducted by spoken description, verbal transcription, and subsequent decipherment. You asked for a route to a destination, and your partner in navigation issued a list of waypoints, landmarks, and driving instructions; you wrote these down (or bravely, committed them to memory); then, as you drove, you compared those descriptions with actual, physical reality, checking to see if a useful correspondence obtained; then, ideally, you glided ‘home.’ A successful navigation was occasion for celebration by both direction-giver and direction-follower; hermeneutical encounters like theirs deserved no less; before, there was the unknown space, forbidding and inscrutable; afterwards, there was a destination, magically clarified, made visible, and arrived at.   There were evaluative scales here to be found: some were better at giving directions than others, their sequence of instructions clear and concise, explicit specifications expertly balanced by exclusion of superfluous, confusing detail; not all were equally proficient at following directions, some mental compasses were easily confused by turns and intersections, some drivers’ equanimity was easily disturbed by difficult traffic and a missed exit or two. (Reading and making maps, of course, has always been a honorable and valuable skill in our civilizations.)

Which reminds us that driving while trying to navigate was often stressful and sometimes even dangerous (sudden attempts to take an exit or avoid taking one cause crashes all the time.) The anxiety of the lost driver has a peculiar phenomenological quality all its own, enhanced in terrifying ways by the addition of bad neighborhoods, fractious family members, darkness, hostile drivers in traffic. And so, Global Positioning System (GPS) navigators–with their pinpoint, precise, routes colorfully, explicitly marked out–were always destined to find a grateful and receptive following. An interactive, dynamic, realistic, updated in real-time map is a Good Thing, even if the voices in which it issued its commands and directions were sometimes a little too brusque or persistent.

But as has been obvious for a long time now, once you start offloading and outsourcing your navigation skills, you give them away for good. Dependency on the GPS is almost instantaneous and complete; very soon, you cannot drive anywhere without one. (Indeed, many cannot walk without one either.) The deskilling in this domain has been, like many others in which automation has found a dominant role, quite spectacular. Obviously, I speak from personal experience; I was only too happy to rely on GPS navigators when I drive, and now do not trust myself to follow even elementary verbal or written driving directions. I miss some of my old skills navigating skills, but I do not miss, even for a second, the anxiety, frustration, irritation, and desperation of feeling lost . An older set of experiences, an older part of me, is gone, melded and merged with a program, a console, an algorithm; the blessing is, expectedly, a mixed one. Over the years, I expect this process will continue; bits of me will be offloaded into an increasingly technologized environment, and a newer self will emerge.

Handing Over The Keys To The Driverless Car

Early conceptions of a driverless car world spoke of catastrophe: the modern versions of the headless horseman would run amok, driving over toddlers and grandmothers with gay abandon, sending the already stratospheric death toll from automobile accidents into ever more rarefied zones, and sending us all cowering back into our homes, afraid to venture out into a shooting gallery of four-wheeled robotic serial killers. How would the inert, unfeeling, sightless, coldly calculating programs  that ran these machines ever show the skill and judgment of human drivers, the kind that enables them, on a daily basis, to decline to run over a supermarket shopper and decide to take the right exit off the interstate?

Such fond preference for the human over the machinic–on the roads–was always infected with some pretension, some make-believe, some old-fashioned fallacious comparison of the best of the human with the worst of the machine. Human drivers show very little affection for other human drivers; they kill them by the scores every day (thirty thousand fatalities or so in a year); they often do not bother to interact with them sober (over a third of all car accidents involved a drunken driver); they rage and rant at their driving colleagues (the formula for ‘instant asshole’ used to be ‘just add alcohol’ but it could very well be ‘place behind a wheel’ too); they second-guess their intelligence, their parentage on every occasion. When they can be bothered to pay attention to them, often finding their smartphones more interesting as they drive. If you had to make an educated guess who a human driver’s least favorite person in the world was, you could do worse than venture it was someone they had encountered on a highway once. We like our own driving; we disdain that of others. It’s a Hobbesian state of nature out there on the highway.

Unsurprisingly, it seems the biggest problem the driverless car will face is human driving. The one-eyed might be king in the land of the blind, but he is also susceptible to having his eyes put out. The driverless car might follow traffic rules and driving best practices rigorously but such acquiescence’s value is diminished in a world which otherwise pays only sporadic heed to them. Human drivers incorporate defensive and offensive maneuvers into their driving; they presume less than perfect knowledge of the rules of the road on the part of those they interact with; their driving habits bear the impress of long interactions with other, similarly inclined human drivers. A driverless car, one bearing rather more fidelity to the idealized conception of a safe road user, has at best, an uneasy coexistence in a world dominated by such driving practices.

The sneaking suspicion that automation works best when human roles are minimized is upon us again: perhaps driverless cars will only be able to show off their best and deliver on their incipient promise when we hand over the wheels–and keys–to them. Perhaps the machine only sits comfortably in our world when we have made adequate room for it. And displaced ourselves in the process.


Twenty-One Car-Free Years

Over the weekend, thanks to traveling up to Albany to meet an old friend, I was unable to make note of an especially important anniversary: March 30th marked twenty-one years of blessed freedom from car ownership.

On March 30th, 1993, I sold my Toyota pickup truck, purchased a mere eighteen months previously, at a drastically marked-down price. My reasons were simple and numerous: I was headed out of the US for an indefinite period; if I returned, it would be to New York City, where I did not expect to own a car; and lastly, most significantly, my insurance premium–in New Jersey–had climbed to an astronomical four thousand dollars a year.

Cars had always been an expensive headache for me. My first car, a Toyota Corolla with over hundred thousand miles on it, had flamed out spectacularly on a New Jersey highway; it had minimal resale value and I was only too happy to dispose of it in a junkyard. My second, a Volkswagen Jetta, had niggling problems with its fuel pump, and spent too much time in the repair shop. And while I owned it, my insurance climbed into the stratosphere.

My troubles began a few minutes after I had picked up the Jetta from the used-car dealer. As I drove down the Garden State Parkway, already late for work, I failed to notice I was speeding. A state trooper pulled me over, informed me I was driving at 78mph in a 55mph zone and gave me a ticket. That meant four points on my license and a thousand dollar increase in my annual  premium. A few months later, after I had skidded on a wet road and hit the kerbside, I filed a damage claim, which the insurance company honored. But in exchange for this thousand-dollar payment, they raised my premium by a thousand dollars a year. And then, finally, thanks to another wet road, I rear-ended a truck, filed a damage claim again and was treated to the same sequence of claim-payment-followed-by-premium-increase.

By late 1992, I could not afford to drive a car any more. But I still had to commute to work. So I persisted for a few months, all the while actively plotting my escape from New Jersey to New York City. When my move looked imminently possible, I put up my truck–purchased after my Jetta’s fuel-pump troubles had become intolerable–for sale.

Twenty-one years on, I remain relieved to be free of the hassles of parking, gas prices, speeding tickets, towing, worries about blood alcohol content, traffic, and all of the rest.  Public transportation, with all its frustrations, works well enough for me. New York City’s magnificently flawed subway system takes me where I need to go; on rare occasions, I rent or borrow a car. That limited and circumscribed ownership is all I can handle.

I do not know if I will ever move out of New York City. If I do, I know one of my most profound regrets will be the leaving behind of this blessedly car-free life.