Cars and Posthumanism: Chapter 23

Cars are like wombs. Inside, you’re safe and warm, practically in the fetal position as the seat envelops you firmly yet comfortably. As you travel, the white noise and the swaying and jiggling closely mimic the experience of a fetus in the womb. This is why a car ride will put a baby to sleep when all else fails. It is well established that fussy infants can be calmed with a combination of snug wrapping, gentle jiggling, and white noise (this is likely the origin of “ssshhh”). Researchers believe that a fetus in the womb, because it is immersed in liquid, is constantly hearing a sound roughly equivalent to a vacuum cleaner.

I think the womb-like aura of cars helps explain how oblivious so many people are when they get behind the wheel of a car. They behave as if nothing bad could ever happen, even though the statistics say otherwise. It’s as if they’re thinking, oh, I don’t need to pay attention, everything will be fine, oh, I’ll take this call on my cell phone even though I know it will distract me, cause nothing can make me feel bad here in my womb.

Many people don’t seem to think it’s worth spending a little time to actually learn how to drive well — as if there’s some subconscious voice whispering, “no need to exert any effort, mommy-car will take care of everything.” This attitude is totally reinforced by our lax licensing requirements and lax traffic violation enforcement. Why is it so common to see someone struggling to parallel park? Normally, a person who lacked a skill important to everyday life would make the effort to get it figured out.

Or why do I so often come across this scene: a driver wants to take a right turn and there’s clearly enough room for them to fit through to the right of a line of stopped cars, but they just sort of half pull over and stop at the end of the line. They have no concept of the spatial extent of the machine they are controlling. One might expect a person would take driving seriously enough to get a better handle on this. But when you consider the car as a womb, that attitude starts to make sense. Is there a better explanation for why, in a culture that is so dependent on cars, are there so many shitty drivers? I’m listening…

This lack of taking driving seriously is even more astounding in light of how it not only impacts something relatively intangible like safety, but it also increases congestion. All people hate traffic, but the spell of the car-womb seems to overpower any motivation to reduce congestion by simply being better a driver. The quintessential example: Why, I am begging someone to explain to me, do so many drivers not use turn signals? (This question is so rich it’s going to get it’s own chapter someday.)

The womb-like nature of cars also contributes to, I suspect, the aggressive behavior of many drivers. Could all those raised middle fingers simply be a manifestation of the uncontrollable negative emotions people feel when sanctity of their car-womb is violated? Babies have tantrums because their brains have not yet developed the neural pathways that allow the frontal cortex to suppress the raw mammalian emotions. Perhaps a womb-like environment encourages a regression back to this infantile state. But surely, whatever the cause, infantile rightly applies to way too many car drivers out there.

Am I thinking too hard about all this? Definitely.

This post is part of a series; see also Chapter 1 and Chapter 37.