Cars are safer than ever. The fatality rate per million miles traveled in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, was 1.1 — a nearly 25% decline since 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Not only do cars handle and brake better than ever before, they are also loaded with safety features including airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control. However, as cars have become safer, their drivers have become less so. Some say this is related to texting while driving and cell phone usage. According to a study published by the Cohen Medical Center, texting while driving is now the largest cause of teen-age driver’s deaths, surpassing alcohol abuse. But I think there is something else going on here. I think that we have new generations of drivers who are simply not connected to their cars. People who grew up driving cars with automatic transmissions, good brakes and reliable engines don’t need to pay any attention to the care, feeding and operation of their machines. Even though they are behind the wheel, they are really passengers in their automobiles. My observations are based on anecdotal experience; simply look at how the people around you drive. When I’m driving an old car in modern traffic, I am ultra-alert. Everyone else on the road can start and stop better than I can. And what might be a fender-bender for them would send a steering column through my chest. During the past couple of years, I have had a chance to drive some vintage sports cars to and from the San Francisco Bay area from Portland on two-lane roads. I was surprised to find that on two-lane roads, I was passing everyone with my puny 96-cubic-inch engine. I came to the conclusion then that most of today’s drivers are “expressway born” and simply don’t know how to pilot their cars skillfully on back roads. They don’t how to downshift to be in the right gear for passing. They don’t know how to look ahead at a traffic pattern see where there’s a chance to step out, pass and slide back in. In general, they drive along obliviously at the posted limit, waiting for a stretch of four- or-six-lane highway where they can go really fast. When the two-lane resumes, their brains shift back into neutral and it’s back to lumbering along. Let’s consider driver behavior on the freeway. How often do you see cars in the fast lane going slower than the flow of the traffic, so that everyone has to change lanes to get around them? Or watch people dive for an exit ramp across traffic lanes? Or merge badly from an on-ramp? Or if you are entering the freeway, how often have you encountered someone who simply refused to give way and forced you to improvise to get into the traffic flow?

Cars better, drivers worse

Nearly every improvement in the user interface with our automobiles has come as a replacement for driver responsibility. Drivers won’t check their tire pressures, so we now have warning lights. Drivers won’t check their mirrors, so we have sensors to tell us if someone is in the lane next to us. Autonomous cars are just an evolutionary — not revolutionary — step in this process. Many of today’s drivers don’t want to really truly drive, so cars will drive for them. I view all of this as an inescapable and not unwelcome part of progress. Nearly every machine becomes more foolproof and simpler to use over time. We no longer load ice into our freezers or have to get up to change the channels on our televisions. However, the art of driving is vanishing. Having a car simply for the visceral pleasure it provides as you run through the gears is something that appeals to a smaller and smaller group of people — we call them enthusiasts. A lot of the joy of motoring is vanishing as well. I’ve driven modern cars and vintage cars on the same two-lane roads. New cars lack emotional and technical challenges. They are faster and more comfortable, but they are really like sitting on a four-wheeled couch as you go through the countryside. They require very little skill from drivers to get them to perform well, and consequently few drivers derive satisfaction from their performance. By contrast, old cars, generally underpowered and with suspect handling, skinny tires and terrible brakes, offer you a dollop of satisfaction every time you properly execute a shift or hit the apex of a turn. With an old car, the concept of mastery includes knowing just how the car should “feel” when it goes down the road. Or how many times you have to pump the throttle when starting it — or not pumping the throttle at all if your car is fitted with SU carburetors. As you watch the needle on the temperature gauge climb, you anticipate just how much better your car will run as it gets into its operating range. You’ve watched it do this hundreds of times, and you know exactly what to expect. A well-tuned car rewards your involvement. Mastery of archaic cars is fast becoming a quaint skill, like knowing how to put a bridle on a horse. We enthusiasts pride ourselves on getting our old cars to do tricks like start and stop, and we are excited when we have wipers that wipe and heaters that heat. If our gas gauges function, we believe a miracle has occurred. Because modern cars do so much on their own, many drivers today will never develop a situational awareness of driving. Few will understand their responsibilities to others on a crowded freeway. They won’t be able to sense when they are going too fast for conditions. They exist as loners, not community members. This isn’t going to change for the better. In some ways, it makes self-driving cars a blessing, for no self-driving car would behave as poorly as many of the drivers we see on the road today.

Farewell, Denise

Racer, author and good friend Denise McCluggage died on May 6, 2015. She was 88 years old. I met her when I was a wet-behind-the-ears journalist reviewing cars for the New York Times, and she was always warm, supportive and helpful. She was a positive, thoughtful force for the entire motoring community, and she will be missed. ♦  

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