How to Drive (More) Responsibly

two potential choicesDriving responsibly – it is a bit of an oxymoron. When you’re piloting a 1.5-ton vehicle through residential neighborhoods at almost any speed, you’re risking the lives of pedestrians and cyclists. When driving your vehicle on the freeway at anywhere close to the speed limit, you’re also risking the lives of yourself, your passengers, and other freeway users. Any tiny mistake with a vehicle that weighs so much and goes so fast is potentially deadly – and often is.

Beyond this, just turning the ignition and not going anywhere is hardly the responsible thing to do, either. Just running your engine is contributing to the worst crisis our species has ever seen. This lecture by Peter Gelderloos really makes clear how important the issue of global climate change is. It has the potential to wipe out billions if we allow it to continue, not to mention the fact that hundreds of thousands are already dying.

So, having said all this, is it responsible to drive? No. But, I thought I’d put together a list of how you can be more responsible while driving. Hell, I drive very rarely, usually using City Carshare. So, I am not saying I am holier than thou.

Most of these rules assume we’re dealing with a passenger car or larger, unless otherwise noted.

1. Don’t break the speed limit. In fact, oftentimes the responsible thing to do is to go slower than the speed limit. Consider the fact that as your speed increases, the likelihood of a fatality in a collision goes up, very quickly. If it is your goal to not kill any pedestrians, you should keep your speed to 20MPH or below when pedestrians are present.

2. Get a more reasonably-sized vehicle. Doesn’t it ever seem ridiculous, just from efficiency alone, to use a 1.5-ton car to transport a 150-lb human? A Vespa scooter, by contrast, weighs about 200 lbs. Yeah, but Vespas still burn gasoline – get an electric scooter to spare all of our olfactory senses. And a bicycle? 20, 30 pounds. I’ll bet for most of your trips one of these personal-transport car alternatives would suit you just fine.

Really, why do you want to always be completely separated from the elements, anyway? Don’t you think it might allow you to more fully appreciate our Earth if you really noticed the weather while traveling?
Ants, on the other hand, totally show us up on the efficiency thing.

3. Look with your eyes. This is the phrase I use with guests in my kitchen who are cooking with me, when they ask where the pepper is (you know who you are). It’s usually right in front of them on top of the stove, above the knobs. Likewise, it seems like drivers do not actively look for non-car traffic, especially bikes. One of the best ways to train yourself to do this is to at least occasionally get on a bicycle in city traffic, or become a pedestrian. You’ll train yourself to become much more aware of everything that is going on on the street.

After 3+ years of city biking, I now actively anticipate how and when a driver will not be looking for me, and do some kind of hand-waving gesture and/or whimsical dance atop my bicycle in order to make the point that they should look.

But that’s just me. And I don’t always enjoy the flair of intimacy with death that this inserts into my day.

The main problem here is that the streets we have train our eyes and our brains to focus on motor vehicles, and motor vehicles only (well, and billboards the size of motor vehicles). So until we have more livable streets for non-car traffic, we all need to look with our eyes.

4. Be patient. It really doesn’t matter if you get to your destination a few minutes later. It isn’t worth risking your life. It isn’t worth the stress of racing to make a red light and of honking at other humans. Over the past few years, I am a much slower and patient driver, and driving is a much more pleasant experience than it used to be. I still greatly prefer others modes of transportation, though.

5. Pass everyone safely, especially vulnerable road users. This is number four continued. If you really feel like you need to pass a cyclist on the road, do so safely. Wait the extra 30 seconds until you are not approaching an intersection or going around a blind curve. It really freaks cyclists out when they are passed unsafely.

6. Reduce your driving such that you don’t need your own personal vehicle. Get City Carshare for short city trips. Get a rental car for longer weekend trips. You’ll be amazed at how little you need your own personal car once you get rid of it.

7. Don’t park on the sidewalk, or block the bike lane. Blocking the bike lane is unsafe for cyclists. It forces us out into motor vehicle traffic, with consequences that are dangerous and sometimes fatal. So, that one is clear.

Sidewalk parking may seem somewhat harmless at first glance. But consider that you are taking space away from children who want to play and neighbors who want to talk. Consider how much space cars already claim in our public space – just look around you on any street. So, don’t pedestrians deserve some space of their own, for their physical and mental health? And, of course, the most vulnerable street users are disabled folks. When you park on the sidewalk, you often block any practical path for disabled folks. Just imagine how dangerous it is for someone in a wheelchair to have to detour into the street because your personal hunk of steel is in their path.

One often hears the excuse that there was nowhere else to park except for the sidewalk. There are two responses to this. First of all, there often are other spots; they may be a block or two away from your front door, but they’re there. Secondly, if there truly isn’t another spot, then too bad. It isn’t your right to store your private property on our public space.

8. Don’t ever drive drunk, or buzzed, or tipsy. Driving drunk is one of the most irresponsible things you can do in public life. Thousands of people die every year because of drunk drivers. Seriously, make other plans. A designated driver, public transportation, a cab. You could even spend the night at a friend’s house. If none of these is an option, then guess what? Neither is driving home.

9. Never, ever honk at pedestrians or cyclists. Honking is a form of intimidation. It says to us: “Get out of my fucking way! I could run you over if I wanted to!” It is never justified, so don’t do it. In fact, you should only ever use your car horn in order to avoid imminent collision. In other words, you should use your horn maybe once per year. All of this unnecessary city noise increases the stress levels of all street users as well as folks who are in residences or establishments nearby. Noise pollution is a serious public health problem.

On a related note, get rid of your car alarm.

That’s all I can think of. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!

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