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road sage

I’ve written many Road Sage columns and received my share of stormy vitriol. This column, however, may make such past bad weather look like a sunny Sunday afternoon in May. It will have some carving my epitaph, “Andrew Clark – Part of the Problem Since 1966.”

You see, I’ve had what you’d call a “surprisingly obvious” epiphany.

I’ve had one of those moments when you discover an uncomfortable truth about yourself. Often, that truth has been hidden; and then, the ambivalent stream of events we call life brings it to the surface and you realize it’s been there all along, present but imperceptible. I had such a flash recently, when I realized that I love destroying the planet or – in other words – driving.

True, from the day I got my license, I’ve always loved driving (and have readily admitted it), but that affection was extended to the beauty of cars in general and a preference for being in motion. I adore plane travel, train travel, walks, (I don’t cycle), horseback riding, anything that puts me in motion between Point A and Point B. I cherish the sensation of being nowhere and everywhere. Plane travel, for instance, became less pleasurable when you could get WiFi in the sky. It lost that precious period when whatever was happening “down there” would not reach passengers “up here.” For the duration of that flight there was nothing but the present minute at 858 kilometres an hour. Now that passengers can get e-mail, it’s horrible.

I have come to realize it’s more than being in motion, more than being in transit. I’m not merely addicted to driving, I don’t just “love” it and find it convenient, I actively, willingly, fervently delight in it and I don’t seem to care about the cost.

This insight came after two surgeries sidelined me from the driver’s seat. For three out of the last 10 months (two six-week stretches), I’ve not been allowed to drive while I recuperated. Note: If you’re empathizing with my love of driving (Don’t worry, I’m fine). If you’re revolted by it (Don’t worry, I suffered).

During these barren patches, I was exiled to the passenger seat. Public transit’s jostling would have been too risky. So, I got around, but was at the mercy of others, and I did not have my hands on the wheel.

I suffered and that was a surprise. I’m not seeking pity. I acknowledge that this pain doesn’t even rate a mention in the wide array of suffering served up by Satan. Rather, I want to convey the visceral nature of the experience. I’ve employed many rationalizations to explain my preference for driving. It’s faster than public transit (It is). It’s more convenient (It is). I wish public transit was better funded, faster and more convenient (I do). Given these facts, I expected to miss driving, but I did not expect to climb the walls like a prisoner in a cell. I did not expect to crave being stuck in rush-hour traffic. I did not expect to miss having fellow motorists give me the finger, paying too much for gas and parking, all while polluting the earth’s atmosphere. I did not expect to pine for an experience I have so often lamented.

Thus, I learned, I don’t drive because I have to, because I want to or because it’s convenient, I drive because I think driving is one of the best experiences in the world.

Why?

I have no idea. I do know that when I want to clear my head, there’s nothing better than a drive. Yes, walks work, and I take plenty of them, but driving a deserted stretch of country highway is on a different level. It fires synapses and dopamine in my shallow mind.

I offer this not as an excuse, but as an explanation.

Nor is it an apology. A world without automobiles may be paradise to some, but these believers fail to understand that the world as we know it is not possible without them. Strawberries don’t arrive in Canada each February by carrier pigeon. Emergency victims don’t arrive at the hospital by horse and buggy. iPhones don’t pop up each spring with the rhubarb.

To be sure, my thinking is a product of a different age, one that equated freedom and automobiles. EVs and other new advances may make my passion more palatable. Perhaps we’ll reach a time when we’re moved by more efficient and environmental means. Driving will be a recreation we indulge at racetracks on the weekends.

Besides, I’m in good (some might say suitable) company. Researchers at the University of Richmond led by Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience Kelly Lambert were able to train 17 rats to drive (rats’ brains have similar areas as human brains and similar neurochemicals). These rats operated tiny rat cars made from a clear plastic food container stuck on wheels. The rat cars had aluminum floors and three copper bars that served as a steering wheel. Rats who passed their driver’s test were rewarded with Froot Loops.

The results of their research, published in 2019, showed “rats that participated in the driving training had healthier stress hormone profiles than they had prior to their training. The researchers assessed hormones by measuring levels of two hormones: corticosterone, a marker of stress, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which counteracts stress. The ratio of DHEA to corticosterone in the rats’ poop increased over the course of their driving training.”

In a previous study, completed in 2018, the research team “compared driving rats to passenger (Uber) rats. They drove the Uber rats around in a remote-control car for the same distances as the yoked driver rats so that the experiences were matched other than having control of the ‘wheel.’ In this study, the driving rats had higher DHEA levels (healthy hormone change) than the Uber rats.”

According to Dr. Lambert, “We concluded that the rats that actually learned to drive had a greater sense of control over their environment that was accompanied by increased DHEA – something like a rodent version of what we refer to as self-efficacy or agency in humans.”

Today, Dr. Lambert and her team continue their research, which “may further inform the science community about treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.”

Plus, it is awesome to see a rat driving a car.

Thank you, Dr. Lambert. I knew there was a reason I love driving so much. I’m just another rat looking for a little open highway and a few Froot Loops.

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