Anna Fitzpatrick’s most recent book is the novel Good Girl.
As long as I’ve been eligible to drive, I’ve been terrified of its deadly consequences.
The week before I began eleventh grade, I attended a classmate’s funeral. I carpooled to the church in downtown Ottawa with my English teacher, and two other students who I sat with on student council. (Our deceased friend had been nominated at the end of the previous school year to be treasurer). We sat in packed pews listening to eulogies from teenage friends, family members, a mother in disbelief. Only a few weeks before, my friend had received her G2 driver’s licence, meaning she was legal to drive in Ontario without being accompanied by another driver. Of her death itself, I can remember four details: it happened in the middle of the day, she was alone in the car, the obituary described it as “the result of a traffic accident,” and she, like myself at the time, was 16 years old.
I was in no rush to learn to drive. It seemed like something I was simply supposed to do before graduating high school, like completing a certain number of volunteer hours, rather than something I actually wanted. Nonetheless, I received my G1 a year later after passing a nearly-perfect written test. I waited another year to take driver’s education, with little in-car practice in between.
In the classroom, we watched dramatic re-enactment videos of kids burning alive after the driver had one drink too many. We heard horror stories of perfectly sober drivers losing their lives after being too careless when making a left-hand turn, or not giving enough space to the car in front of them – seconds of human error with fatal consequences. My own days were filled with human errors. I spilled my coffee. I put my shirt on inside out. The stakes for these slip-ups were low; nobody’s life was put at risk if I accidentally put salt in my tea. But It was hard to not imagine being in a situation in which a split-second mistake could result in my parents having to deliver a eulogy.
During the in-car portion of driver’s ed, I anxiously gripped the wheel as I was urged by my instructor to make tighter turns, to merge faster, to generally just speed up. “Going too slowly on the highway can be just as dangerous as going too fast,” he said, as I manipulated the 2,500 pounds of steel that I was told was necessary for me to master if I wanted to have a normal adult life. It seemed like a mistake that I was immediately allowed to drive on roads with other motorists with only a brake pedal on the instructor’s side preventing us from total catastrophe.
I hated those lessons. I looked to them with dread, unable to sleep the night before, a perpetual hum of angst that turned into an adrenal rush on the road and left me feeling depleted and exhausted when I was done. It wasn’t the instructor or what he asked me to do that I hated, though – it was the act of driving itself. I passed driver’s ed, but did not bother to go for my G2 test even though I was eligible. Instead, that fall, I moved to Toronto for university. I learned how to navigate the city by public transit, by foot, and later, by cycling. I let my driver’s licence expire.
In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which offered an explanation for panic attacks I had been prone to getting since I was a kid, including some so severe they caused me to lose consciousness or put me in the emergency room. These intense reactions could occur in a range of benign circumstances, and at the time they seemed to also explain my fear of driving: My brain chemicals were simply out of balance. Medication and therapy were able to mitigate my anxiety somewhat, but I still tried to avoid situations that I knew would be stressful.
I saw one specialist who tried treating me with cognitive behaviour therapy, which felt helpful for handling some of the everyday contexts that could trigger my anxieties – but I couldn’t understand how managing my own thoughts and behaviours would change the deadly realities of cars. I’ve read the Ontario Driver’s Handbook multiple times, and passed practice tests online with perfect scores. I’m probably more familiar with the rules of the road at this point than many licensed motorists. And yet, I still have not been able to get to a place where my driving anxiety felt under control. Now, at 32, I no longer see my fear of driving as something irrational to get over. Instead, I think it’s our dependence on driving that is irrational.
Driving is deadly. Each year, 1.35 million people are killed on roadways around the world. In Canada, there were 1,623 fatalities from traffic collisions in 2019, with another 104,169 recorded injuries. When I informally surveyed my friends and peers, I learned that a substantial number of them had known at least one person who died in a car crash before graduating from high school. Meanwhile, vehicles are getting bigger: SUVs, trucks and vans account for 80 per cent of new motor vehicle sales in Canada, with studies showing that SUVs are two to three times more likely than regular passenger cars to kill pedestrians upon impact.
Still, learning to drive is seen as a required rite of passage. I don’t blame my friends who, the moment they turned 16, rushed out to get their licence. For those living in sprawling suburban neighbourhoods and transit deserts, the ability to drive is the only way for many people to have a life without relying on the availability of their parents to chauffeur them. This type of understanding isn’t always returned. I see the eyebrows raise when friends outside major cities hear I haven’t gotten my licence (or, in their words, that I haven’t gotten my licence yet). There’s a perception that I’m stuck in an extended adolescence, that I haven’t hit a mandatory marker of maturity.
Driving is a massive responsibility, one that should only be undertaken by those who can safely handle being behind the wheel of the car. I assume this is an attitude also felt by the most enthusiastic of car aficionados. Who wants to share the road with a nervous driver prone to hyperventilating? Yet I see protest from some drivers at any attempt to offer alternatives. I remember being at the library earlier this year, reading an op-ed that ran on the cover of the Toronto Sun complaining about Yonge Street bike lanes causing delays of up to 90 seconds for motorists. I felt demoralized at the need to frame something so basic as road safety as an “us vs. them” issue, one with winners and losers. I care about the safety of car drivers, who represent 50.5 per cent of all car-related deaths in Canada. I want us all to be winners. Instead of forcing everybody to become comfortable with driving (a losing battle), we can and should invest in building safer and more sustainable alternatives for those who are not.
In Canada, an estimated three million adults have a mood or anxiety disorder, and up to a third of adults will experience a panic attack in any given year. Many people with anxiety are, of course, perfectly capable of driving, and would probably resent being lumped in with me, but I can only assume there are those for whom the risk is simply not worth it.
There are other reasons people abstain from driving. A study from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that 60.4 per cent of people aged 18 to 64 with disabilities drive, compared with 91.7 per cent of people aged 18 to 64 without. Even the most experienced and competent drivers can be thrown off by common circumstances. Driving while sleepy can make you 2½ times more likely to get into an accident; approximately 20 per cent of fatal collisions in Canada are caused by drowsy drivers. A study from Cardiff University found that driving under the influence of the common cold can slow down reaction times, similar to driving drunk – and this is without having taken cold medicine.
I have no desire to take away anyone’s right to drive. Rather, I’m interested in making life more accessible for everyone else: the anxiety-prone, people with disabilities, the sick and the sleepy, those who hate driving, and even those who love it but hate being dependent on a car for every errand. Investing in better infrastructure for mass transit, pedestrians and cyclists would mean that more people can choose less deadly options. It also would mean that drivers won’t view non-drivers as the enemy, and instead recognize that everyone is just trying to make it to their destination. Building and encouraging alternatives to driving means that those who do end up behind the wheel of a car are those who are truly comfortable being there. We would all be safer that way.