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Me, the Automobile, and Modernity

Published on 4th February 2020

I. 

Once upon a bygone era, in a remote Egyptian village buried deep in the Nile Delta, my father rode a motorcycle.

On August 4, 1994, an hour after the birth of his first child--my oldest sister--he made a 90-degree turn on a bumpy road straight into an equally jolted car. The motorcycle stopped but my father did not, catapulting off the Suzuki and over the other car and into a muddy ditch. He emerged from the collision scratch-free, but like his beloved Suzuki, his appetite for motorcycling was wrecked. His right leg still hurts.

My appetite for motorcycles burnt out early. The memory of my last and first ride is more feeling than sight: the thundering wind, the whining motor, the warmth of my laughing cousin’s shirt pressed against my whimpering face, my clanging heart. When I opened my eyes, the dirt road was rushing away, receding like sand before a wave crashes onto shore. I sat still waiting for when the motorcycle would stop and I would keep going. It never came, and I never cared to try again. The motorcycle was also a Suzuki.

II.

The average number of automobile accidents in the United States every year is 6
million. They injure 2-3 million people and kill more than 37,000 individuals. As the Croatian photographer Antun Maracic melodramatically intoned in 2002: “it is obsessive peacetime killing on the roads . . . daily slaughter and crashing without break, pause, rest, cessation. There is no vacation, no holiday, time of abstinence . . .Everyday, everyday, nonstop.” Most auto-body repairmen would note, happily, that demand for their services has been just as ceaseless.

The first automobile accident in American history technically took place in 1869, when Irish scientist Mary Ward fell off and into the path of her cousin’s steam-powered buggy and promptly had her neck snapped. The first accident with a gasoline-powered automobile (what we moderns might recognize as a “car”) was a less morbid affair: in Ohio City in 1891, engineer James Lambert crashed into a hitching post. The spread of gas-powered vehicles by the 1900s only accelerated the pace of accidents. Neither auto- body nor auto-repair shops yet existed: only the rich had cars, and they were expected to fix their own mess. Carpenters did occasionally help. Only by the 1920s, when the Model T Ford had overrun American society, did formal repair garages appear. By the 1930s, Americans felt entitled enough as drivers to rely on other people to clean up their mess. The auto-body profession was born.

The 1950s heralded the dawn of America’s fanciest and deadliest cars. Like teenagers drunk on adolescence, automobile manufacturers mistook for the future the gigantesque frames of 18-foot Cadillacs and their ilk. Impalas looked pretty good until gearshifts impaled their drivers and glove compartments decapitated their passengers. With vehicles married to aesthetics and divorced from safety, automobile deaths skyrocketed: in 1965, the number of fatalities per 100,000 people was 24.2 (it was 11.4 in 1920). Auto-body repairmen, meanwhile, welcomed the so-called “dinosaurs in the driveway,” which, murderous tendencies aside, also demanded healthy repair fees. The explosion of American car ownership from 31 to 89 million between 1945 and 1965 only inflated their customer base.

The dinosaurs’ honeymoon with destruction ended after 1965, when Ralph Nader exposed the lethal excesses of car manufacturers in his book Unsafe at Any Speed. By the 1980s, federal laws had made the automobile considerably safer. Aside from redesigned seatbelts, headrests, and airbags, manufacturers created “crumple zones”: areas in the vehicle designed to deform and collapse in collisions. These allow the car, instead of the driver, to absorb the often-fatal energy of the impact. Modern automobiles became unwilling heroes, sacrificing themselves to protect their passengers. Insurance companies aside, everyone wins: people die less, while auto-body men get paid more. 

Fatalities have fallen since the days of decapitating glove compartments, but accidents have only multiplied. With more than 253 million automobiles on American roads, collisions aren’t stopping.

III.

My father believes in fate, which might explain why he’s so eager to tempt it. Ten years after he escaped death by Suzuki, I answered the phone. “Is your mother there?” my father asked, his voice tired. We were on a summer vacation in Egypt, but my father had stayed behind in the United States. 

She’s at my aunt’s. “Have her call me back,” he said, and hung up. I found out later that, although our white Montana Pontiac had flipped three times when the collision happened, the doctors didn’t find a single broken bone in my father’s body.

Twelve years after, I was stuck in traffic at the exit to Ryder’s Lane. My oldest sister called. He’d gotten into another accident. At the exit to Ryder’s Lane. Wooden pole.

My father, when he came home from the hospital a few hours later, adamantly insisted that he had abided by the 15mph speed limit.

IV.

The automobile is the avatar of modernity. It is everything that modernity is and isn't, everything that it should be and everything that it shouldn't. 

V.
In the words of Croatian photographer Antun Maracic: “crashing without break, pause, rest, cessation.” My family’s insistence at driving along the edges of the abyss—always teetering, never falling—has left me equal parts fascinated and terrified by auto accidents. In the years before New Jersey licensed me to play with life-size vehicles on life-size highways, I played with toy models in my apartment’s hallways. A Porsche, police van, Lucky Charms racecar, city bus, STG Motormax, orange Cadillac, school bus, silver BMW, and a Japanese racecar: I wreaked vehicular apocalypse upon them all—flipping, skidding, flinging, spinning—while reveling in the spectacle like a captive beating his captors. The plastic cars were considerably more durable than their metallic counterparts, never losing so much as a chip of paint even as they drove off the cliffside of my bunk bed.

The harmless nature of my plastic destruction allowed me to confront the auto accident, which represented everything I feared: failure, tragedy, un-control. In a life of uninterrupted privilege—the privilege of perfect health, of academic success, of surviving family—the crash seems inevitable. It’s fate’s announcement, in screaming metal and shattered frames, that you've used up your chances. 

VI. 
Not long ago, the son of my former Cadillac-owning uncle arrived in the States, the memory of his own father’s near-death still fresh. He backed my mother's 2007 Toyota Sienna into my father’s new 2017 Ford Edge. We stood in shame beside my father as he examined the garbled fender and passenger door. After a long silence, he stood and laughed.

“Better the car than the person,” he said with a chuckle. “Better the car.”



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