Sunday, January 22, 2012

License to Not Drive

I don't drive.

I've mentioned this oh-so-little, but oh-so-defining factoid about myself several times over the years, and occasionally I've alluded to the phobia I have that is the reason I don't drive. An e-friend coined 'euqunophobia' to describe it, from the Greek root for 'to pilot' as in a chariot. Prior to his making that word up out of thin air, there was no word in the English language to denote fear of driving. That ought to tell you something, since there's a one-word definition for fear of practically everything else. Apparently nobody fears driving.

Meet Nobody: me.

Outside the driver's seat of a vehicle and asked to consider the act of driving rationally, I'll tell you that yes, I certainly could drive a car. For a while. I might even get through an entire day, week, or hell, month, without hitting something and dying, probably taking others with me. But eventually my attention would waver at a critical second and that'd be that. Splat. This is a given, an absolute certainty, and I base that projection on my inability to pay attention to everything at once.

I look at all you drivers and wonder, honestly wonder how you do it. How do you shut up the little niggling voice in your brain that works out how fast you're going, how fast the vehicle coming towards you is going, and what would happen if that driver fumbled his smartphone and inadvertently jerked the wheel right into your path. What X-ray vision technique do you use to determine that there is not in fact a child about to run out into traffic from between those two parked cars?

Back in Driver's Ed.--which I did take, believe it or not--I found the only driving I was at all comfortable with was freeway driving. People look at me oddly when I confess that, since if anything is going to scare a veteran driver, it's usually the 401. Especially through Toronto, which I confess I have never attempted:

This is the busiest highway in the world. It's not at this level where I live now, or an hour west of here where I lived when I drove on it over twenty years ago. I once talked to a Californian whose knuckles went white travelling the above stretch as a passenger. "Brian", I said, "you're from California. You've been through L.A. Surely this can't be that much different."
"But it is," he said. "The trucks...on this road there are almost more trucks than cars. You don't see that in L.A. at all. It's scary to be between two tractor-trailers that might squash you like a bug."

Welcome to my imagination, I thought.

But the truth is, trucks or cars, the traffic doesn't bother me overmuch on the highway. I can convince myself it's semi-predictable; at the very least, we're all going in the same direction and I don't have to waste too much mental energy worrying about things like this.

In the city, it's another story. It's chaos. Every intersection could well be hiding a red-light runner about to T-bone me. Cars are coming towards me: any one or all of them might be driven by people with an eye and a half on a goddamn screen instead of the road, where I am. I don't know how you drivers do it...I really don't. I'd crack in short order.

If you're wondering how I can cycle with this attitude, it's easy. Bikes move considerably slower and there's usually an escape route available for any developing trouble, even if it's turning your front wheel into the curb and ditching (which I have done, more than once). And most of the streets I cycle on are not primary arteries. Traffic is minimal. Somtimes I have an entire lane to myself. Bike lanes are made of awesome.

But I have been hit as a cyclist and also as a pedestrian. That last story hasn't been detailed in this blog, so here it is: it happened early one winter's morning as I was leaving my job at King and University 7-Eleven en route to my then-girlfriend's place, my de facto home that year, a couple of blocks away. I crossed King Street and turned to cross University: took a few steps out into the intersection when a car turned right directly into me and threw me about ten feet. It was a good thing that car was barely moving and also that I was bundled up against the chill. I was barely winded.  A young woman got out of the car, said "oh my God" about thirty times, repeatedly asked me if I was okay, and then... and then she offered to drive me home. Like I was going to get into a car that had just hit me. I mean, seriously.

As I said, it would only be a matter of time before I'd hit or be hit driving a car. Probably not a long time, either. I equate driving with a video game; in all the video games I've tried, I've never managed to go longer than a few minutes without crashing. The difference is, in real life you don't get five seconds off the clock and a brand new car.

It turns out I'm not alone in my non-driving state, although there aren't many males my age who don't drive, and many of the females I know who don't drive do have their driver's licenses. We non-drivers tend to keep pretty quiet about it. I can't speak for others, but for me there's a sense of shame. Driving is a basic human skill, or so it seems. Teenagers can't wait to do it. Everyone seems to take having and driving a car for granted.

And it really places limits on your life. There are many jobs I could do, and very well, but for the lack of a license. It's critically important that I live on a bus route; even better if I'm within walking distance of work, as I now am.  I'm supremely lucky to be married to a woman who does not mind doing all the driving. I could get groceries from work to hom without her, but it would not be easy and I'd probably have to shop day by day, which would drive up costs dramatically.

The rationalizations I have used to assuage my shame at failing this most simple test of civilized behaviour have gradually, over many years, become statements I take pride in. I'm not polluting the environment. Whether walking or cycling, I'm out in the fresh air getting exercise. I've saving a metric buttload of money. And let's face it, even if I could drive, I'd choose to walk or cycle most of the time anyway. Walking is pleasant, provided you're dressed for the weather. I was reflecting on this yesterday as I was assaulted with a -20 windchill, in other words, a normal January day for this area. The air was a beer commercial: cold, clean, and crisp. Somebody down the way had a fire going. Ah. Memories of campfires past flitted through my mind. The neighbourhood was still mostly asleep, and I could easily imagine myself to be all alone. Just me and my music and an easy kilometer's walk.

Tomorrow it will rain...but a little water never hurt anybody. The walk gives me a chance to plan my day going in and decompress from it coming home, all without having to worry about tons of steel crunching, glass breaking, blood spraying... You know what? This not driving isn't so bad.

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