Wall Street Journal review of 'Why We Drive' by Matthew Crawford

The coronavirus has parked multitudes on their sofas, where many have gone half-mad reading rants from advanced-studies graduates of the University of ­Twitter. Matthew Crawford’s “Why We Drive” is the perfect antidote. 

Mr. Crawford, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia and the author of “Shop Class as Soulcraft” (2009) and other works of social philosophy, has written a thoughtful, entertaining and substantive work about the joys of driving—and about the attempts by various scolds to relegate that joy, and similar expressions of independence, to the junkyard of history. 

Driving, Mr. Crawford explains, can be a daring undertaking that provides the pleasures of “being actively and skillfully with a reality that pushes back against us”—­sometimes harshly. Driving is a “domain of skill, freedom, and individual responsibility.” To drive “is to exercise one’s skill at being free.” Or, as an earlier philosopher might have put it: I drive, therefore I am. 

Mr. Crawford is not spouting theory—he is a practitioner. During one 12- month stretch his motorcycle driving passion ­resulted in four emergency-room pit stops. He has caused police jaws to drop as he passed through radar traps just slightly below the speed of light. Yet real road ­danger, he says, comes courtesy of the two-headed monster ­created by technological progress and safety neurosis. This is a monster with teeth. 

Highway deaths, he writes, rose at their fastest rate in 50 years between 2013 and 2015. Why? Because “cars became boring to drive. . . . I mean really boring. . . . Driving a modern car is a bit like returning to the womb.” Drivers are increasingly insulated from the road; self-braking devices, navigation screens, cruise control and similar gizmos result in less ­attentive drivers. Smartphones, which promised to keep “boredom at bay,” keep eyes off the road, to disastrous effect. 

Meanwhile safety monitors keep their pitiless vigil. Their purpose, Mr. Crawford suggests, is less risk reduction than good old-fashioned pillage. In 2016, he says, “the District of Columbia took in $107.2 million from its photo radar traffic enforcement cameras.” The cameras were strategically placed in intersections heavily used by commuters from Virginia and Maryland and harvested what amounted to “free money,” in Mr. Crawford’s analysis. Chicago raked in $600 million from red-light cameras, augmenting the take by shortening yellow-light duration, a move that itself caused a jump in rear-end crashes and injuries. In the same spirit, lowering speed limits to unrealistic levels means more manna for localities and for insurance companies, which, after certain traffic violations, can extract higher premiums for years. 

The chapter titles in “Why We Drive” reveal an instinctive skepticism and pleasant pugnaciousness: “The Diminishing Returns of Idiot-Proofing as a Design Principle,” “Auto­mation as Moral Reeducation,” “ ‘Reckless Driving’: Rules, Reasonableness, and the Flavor of Authority.” Among much else, he takes up old cars (he’s their friend); road rage (a rejection of egalitarianism that is aided by tinted windows); and the DMV (visiting which offers a “civic education in submission to a type of authority that relies on unintelligibility to insulate itself”). 

He can be evangelical at times, as when attempting to convince a rural Virginia judge that motorcycling 30 mph or so over the speed limit shouldn’t necessarily be considered reckless. When you’re “riding a bike you are not texting, not looking at your navigation screen, not fussing with the kids in the backseat,” he explained during a court appearance. Plus, you have “a lot of skin in the game”—since you’ll leave lots of it on the road if you crash. His argument didn’t find much traction with the judge but was a noble effort. 

Mr. Crawford is at his best rattling the smug beliefs of “bicycle moralists, electric scooter gliders-about, and ­carbon teatotalers,” not to mention safety nags, whose ­mission in life is to pour their enlightened sugar into renegade gas tanks. While he recognizes that people who invoke safety “enjoy a nearly non-rebuttable presumption of ­public spiritedness,” he thinks that an abundance of caution diminishes us. A fixation on risk reduction, he explains, “tends to create a society based on an unrealistically low view of human capacities.” In contrast to the U.S., ­Germany—which has no speed limit on some roads—“treats citizens like adults. This is a bracing concept.” 

Mr. Crawford, who admires the adage “Every Man Dies. Not Every Man Lives," visits pockets of resistance, including a demolition derby animated by a love of mayhem for its own sake; it recalls, he says, an “Iron Maiden concert, circa 1983.” At a “Hare Scramble” motorcycle race, women ride like demons and berate their men to "man up. ” In France, 60% of automated radar devices had been disabled as of January 2019, likely the work of the Yellow Vest movement. 

Yet the resistance is not winning. “Qualities once prized, such as spiritedness and a capacity for independent ­judgment, are starting to appear dysfunctional.” A Kant quotation (the author quotes only the finest) sums up the enlightened view of resisters: “We look with profound ­contempt upon the way in which savages cling to their ­lawless freedom.” 

Silicon Valley will take it from here. Its plan is fairly ­simple: “removing us from the driver’s seat.” Some will benefit more than others, Mr. Crawford says. Rides in self-driving cars “will remain cheap only until the buses and trains disappear. Then the laws of monopoly pricing will take effect.” Surveillance capitalism, meanwhile, will empty passenger pockets with nearly supernatural virtuosity, “nudging” us to buy stuff by sending self-driving cars ­toward the types of businesses that show up in our digital conversations. “It seems likely there will be real time ­auctions to determine the route your Google car takes,” Mr. Crawford explains, “so you can be offered empowering choices along the way.” Suddenly, being parked on the sofa doesn’t seem so bad. 

Mr. Shiflett’s writing and original music are posted at Daveshiflett.com