Panic can kill as surely as complacency

On the terror of automobiles, as seen by a new adult driver. On existential responsibility. On driving and flow. On the resulting necessity of competence and confidence (without overconfidence).

I’m dogsitting on the other side of the island, a gig that comes complete with car. So today marks the fourth day I have participated in that most American of activities: commuting by car. This is unusual for me because I did not get my first license until November 2012, 9 months ago. I was and continue to be a dedicated urban biker.

As a bicyclist, I am acutely aware that cars are actually terrifying murder machines. Despite somehow escaping 14 years of bicycling without any major accidents,  I have seen drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists killed; I have been sideswiped; and I have been forced to leap off my bike at the last minute to narrowly avoid being smooshed. I have a healthy fear of cars.

Now I am a driver, a terrible responsibility. I can easily kill someone if I lose attention for a moment–if my eyelids start to droop, if I look at the radio, or if I check my phone. Yet, if I am too nervous, I will be hesitant and I will be even more dangerous.

I have not told you anything that you don’t already know. But it is also something that I think we forget to think about on a daily basis (to really drive the point home, you should watch Warner Herzog’s harrowing short film on texting and driving). And that is why traffic deaths are the #5 cause of death in the United States.

So driving is actually a terrific existential choice, like owning a gun. By driving, I choose to participate in an activity that could result in my or others’ death. Judging from most drivers’ behavior on the roads, I suspect most drivers have forgotten that. However, choosing NOT to drive also entails moral consequences. If, as I usually do, I let a friend drive me, I have simply passed responsibility to that friend–and while I am no longer legally responsible for any accident that happens (unless I was distracting the driver), I still bear some moral responsibility.

“Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined through calm.” -Miyamoto Musashi, Book of 5 Rings. 

Quoting martial arts wisdom is very 1980s, I know. Shut up, this is important.

My mentor/bartender gave me The Book of 5 Rings when I was living in Japan and doing very poorly. When he handed it to me, he said “this book saved my life,” and it has done the same for me. Just as Musashi brought mindfulness to the act of swordfighting, so should we focus on the act of driving. As in dueling, driving can be fatal. As in dueling, we must be constantly aware of other’s actions when driving. As in dueling, panic can kill as surely as complacency, and I see a lot of both panic and complacency on the road today.

Much has been written about this optimal mindful state which is described as neither complacent nor panicked. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly has proposed the concept of Flow (which has many similarities to the Tao, the Way, etc.) to describe this state:

…in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it (Csikszentmihaly, Flow, 1990, p. 4).

Csikszentmihaly’s view is (consciously) quite similar to descriptions of the Tao, and to Miyamoto’s optimal states, and yet I’m a little suspicious of that “enjoyable” modifier. Need we enjoy driving to have that “determination through calm” that Miyamoto describes?

New drivers: practice, pay attention, be careful. Competence should lead to confidence. Experienced drivers: don’t be overconfident. Be safe, everyone, and be mindful. Your Kia is still a murder machine.