These parts of the book I found somewhat unrelatable. I have spent most of my life driving station wagons and minivans; our road trip’s automotive challenges — the oil change and the constant tire-pressure management — more or less exhausted my capacities for automotive tinkering; I find little romance in hyper-specific brands, and I doubt I would qualify for Crawford’s highest-ranking license.
At the same time, though, I do love to drive — yes, even unto hour 50 of a cross-country trip — and I love it for some of the psychological and political reasons his book describes.
Learning to drive as a teenager, even without a full-time vehicle of my own, was a clear demarcation point in the journey out of childhood, a fundamental change in my relationship to the grown-up world. Understanding the places I’ve lived through their roadways, even if I don’t quite have the skill of a London cabby, has always been crucial to feeling at home and responsible, an adult and a citizen embedded in a specific place. Like most people, I have my driving app to screen for traffic and carry me through the unfamiliar, but I always prefer to use it as a map — zooming out to contextualize the route, turning off the peremptory voice — rather than as an A.I. co-pilot.
And however illusory it may be in an age of GPS and ubiquitous surveillance, there’s still no feeling quite like the moment when the snarls of traffic and the dense-packed buildings fall away and you enter space that feels unmanaged, unscrutinized, independent and anonymous, with roads leading almost anywhere, north, south and west.
Certainly there are other ways to attain some of these feelings and experiences. The young adult in the big city might achieve a similar sense of adult transition or escape by mastering a complex subway or a medieval (or Bostonian) tangle of streets. The ideal urban neighborhood is knowable on foot or on a bicycle in the way that more sprawling areas are knowable by car. What I feel driving deep into the country someone else might feel with a backpack at the edge of a national park.
But the scale of America is incredibly well suited to the potential gifts of the automobile. There is a necessary mixing between cities and states and regions that can happen by car and never by any scheme for high-speed railroads, let alone the hapless and costly versions on offer from our existing transportation bureaucracy. The virtues involved in being a good driver — the mix of independence and cooperation, knowledge and responsibility — really are virtues well suited to citizenship in a sprawling and diverse republic. And if driving makes some people distinctly anxious, learning to do it well, or just well enough, is also a tonic for anxiety, an easily available antidote to the sense that the world is pure chaos, beyond anyone’s control.