From the Archive: A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

Continuing along the thread of music and the experience of systems and of movement, here is a post that appeared on my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, on November 11, 2011. In it, I draw from half-remembered conversations from grad school to inform an elucidation of the fluidity of movement and the transparency of technical artifacts when we are using them.

(This post was followed, a few days later, by a more technical post based on an attempt to read Husserl.)


A Phenomenology of Driving, and Other Matters

Yesterday morning, I was discussing risk and risk perception with my engineering ethics class, focusing on the distinction between the risk expert’s quantitative approach to risk (risk = probability of harm x magnitude of harm) with the lay public’s qualitative and experiential approach to risk.

There are a number of reasons, I noted, why Americans regularly accept the relatively high risk of injury or death from automobile accidents (with ~40,000 car-related deaths in the United States every year), but are skittish about flying in airplanes and exposure to other risks that are, statistically, of much lower probability.

People are generally more likely to accept risks they take on voluntarily, for example, than risks that are imposed without their consent. People are also more likely to accept familiar risks than those that are novel. They may also, I speculated, be more willing to accept risks when they have a sense of being in control of their own fate. In fact, when we are in a familiar circumstance with a sense of being in control, we may not even perceive a given activity as risky at all.

There is little in American experience more familiar than driving and riding in automobiles, and we seldom feel more in control of our own fates than when we are behind the wheel.

(On a personal note, this is why I’m such a lousy passenger, and why I can never sleep when I’m a passenger in a moving car, even when someone I trust is at the wheel: I’m always tense, always vigilant, always too ready to imagine an accident.)

I launched into a digression on the familiarity of driving, drawing from (still more) half-forgotten insights from my days in graduate school.

We are comfortable with the risks of driving a car because the car itself hardly enters into our awareness, let alone any objective, scientific knowledge of the car as machine and as object-in-motion that might factor into the probability and magnitude of an accident.

It is only when something goes wrong that we notice the car at all: when a tire blows out, or a CV joint seizes up, or an ignition coil fails, or something strikes the car.

I recalled, in graduate school, a phenomenological elucidation of the experience of driving, by way of Martin Heidegger’s take on the ontology of the environing world. I can’t now recall whether and to what degree I contributed to this particular elucidation; it may have been developed by a fellow graduate student, or by one of our professors. In class, yesterday, I also couldn’t recall the many nuances of the account, since my Heideggerian is more than a little rusty. Here’s the gloss I offered:

A tool, when I’m using it, is ready-to-hand: it does not present itself to me as an object, but as a function, as a possibility of doing something. While I’m using it, while it is functioning, its materiality, its existence as an object over against me, fades. It becomes, as it were, transparent.

When the tool breaks, or something goes wrong in my use of it, then I might experience it as at hand, as a material object that exists over against me.

(See Heidegger 1962, pp. 95-102, etc. I could quote Heidegger here, but why? The curious and the daring can check it out for themselves, and good luck to them.)

So, while I’m driving, the materiality and mechanism of the car hardly enters my awareness. If I want to turn left, I turn left. If I want to cruise at 70mph, I cruise at 70mph.

But then, in the spring of my last full year as a graduate student – right about the time I presented my first conference paper, in fact – I was cruising north at 70mph in the left-hand lane of the Taconic Parkway in Westchester County, New York, when the engine simply stopped. I happened to look at the dash board just as the tachometer zeroed out.

I managed, somehow, to coast across three lanes of traffic and onto an exit ramp, where I stopped the car on the shoulder.

And there I sat, in a big, useless hunk of metal with all the speed drained out of it. I wanted to kick it, but that might have hurt my foot.

It turns out the ignition coil had failed.

Cruising up the parkway, listening to the radio, I was no more aware of the ignition coil than I was of all the trees along the road I might have hit, or all the bridges that might have failed, or all the sleepy, angry, overstressed, drunk and/or distracted drivers around me. I was in control, the master of a fluid little universe of motion and purpose.

So, yesterday, in my office after my morning class, I was checking out recent blog posts on the Sustainable Cities Collective site, when I came across a post on the experience of driving and the way person-machine separation breaks down when we’re at the wheel. The author of the post puts it this way:

When we step – or in the case of the Escalades-and-the-housewives where I live, leap – into cars we tend to check separation at the door. Our mobiles selves become our only selves and all our terrible humanity gets equipped with a 2,000 pound steel ram (or Ram). The odd, modern quirk of this, of course, is that we’ve dedicated our main veins of travel to something rather chimeric: the modern automobile.

So far, so serendipitous.

Reading and responding to that post made me a little late for my environmental ethics class, so I started with a quick apology and explanation, introducing my students to a Heideggerian phenomenology of driving.

The goal of yesterday’s class was to introduce the idea of sustainability and move on to a discussion of the ethics of sustainability. While I was discussing the phenomenology of driving, it occurred to me it could also elucidate our perception of the broader socio-technical systems that support all the various projects of modern civilization. While we use those systems – turning on taps, flipping switches, shopping for food and clothing, exchanging information and, yes, leaping into cars – their materiality and their fragility recede from awareness.

We cruise along, masters of our fluid universe of motion, and commerce, and purpose . . . until something breaks down or, to switch metaphors, one of the natural or social or technological props is knocked out from under us.

So, I came around to the problem of sustainability through the back door, connecting with the limits of perception and the need for systems imagination along the way.

I made another connection, along the way, with a striking passage from James Howard Kunstler’s novel World Made By Hand. The story is set in the midst of “the long emergency”, with civilization in collapse and the survivors slowly and painfully adjusting to a low-tech, intensely local life without fossil fuels. Early on, the narrator reports a recurring dream:

I was sitting in a comfortable padded chair gliding swiftly over the landscape in a way that felt supernatural yet oddly familiar. I did not feel any wind in my face, despite the speed, which was much faster than anything I was accustomed to. I was deeply at ease in my wonderful traveling chair and thrilled by the motion. Familiar sights whizzed by: the Larmon farm on the Battenville Road, Holyrood’s cider mill, the old railroad overpass outside the village of Shushan, pastures and cornfields, hills, hollows, and houses I had known for years. In the dream, I came to realize that I was moving inside some kind of protective envelope, not just sitting in a wonderful chair. Then, a dashboard resolved before me with its round glowing gauges, and then the steering wheel. Of course, I remembered, with the bottom falling out of my stomach, I am driving a car! It had been so many years since I had done that! It was a dream-memory of something that now seemed hardly different from the magic carpets of my childhood storybooks. But then the speed picked up alarmingly and I was no longer at ease. I careened around curves in the road just missing gigantic trees. I couldn’t remember what to do with my feet. I had lost control . . . (Kunstler 2008, p.19)


Martin Heidegger. 1962. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper Collins.

James Howard Kunstler. 2008. World Made By Hand. Grove Press.

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