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A Personal Anthropology of Driving

12 Mar

As I shift the gear stick I can feel the muscles tensing and releasing in my left arm; I can also imagine the tendons moving smoothly under the flesh, like steel lift cables, as the contracting muscles react to the electric jolts shooting down the nervous pathways spread across the body.  Both of my legs work in tandem with my left arm to leverage the accelerator and clutch pedals in a fluid series of movements to change the engines gear, whilst the right arm keeps the steering wheel stable.  My eyes keep a steady lookout at the road ahead, alert to the changes around me and the weather before me as the grey clouds break and heavy raindrops start to splatter the windscreen.  A quick flick of my index finger switches the front wipers on.  My ears are primed to the sounds of passing engines or the screaming sirens of emergency vehicles.  Perceptibly, but just, I can feel my heart beat that much faster as my right foot presses down on the accelerator.  At a stretch I’d say it was beating in time to the song playing, but that may be poetic licence and an exaggeration…

~~~

Broken Bones: Convoluted as a Medical History

It has been just over  a year since I first started driving in a daily capacity after passing my driving test a few years ago.  It has been a long and somewhat patient journey to get to this stage.  I had passed the theory and practical tests almost two years beforehand, but a well-timed pathological fracture to the right tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg (as, when a tibia breaks, the fibula, acting as a supporting lateral strut to the larger and more robust tibia bone and connected to it by a tough fibrous tissue, also often fractures) kept me off the road for a good while after having just ordered a car for the first time.  After healing from this fracture, the third such transverse fracture for these two bones, I was again ready to hop in the car and onto the road but this time as a fully legit legal driver no longer in his training vehicle.  My body, however, had different ideas as I went on instead to fracture the right humerus bone of the upper arm in an accident shortly before receiving the said car, delaying once again my time to drive and the time on the tarmac.

As a direct result of these two separate fracture incidents I gained two new titanium plates as permanent (and palpable) bodily additions and welcomed, though somewhat initially delayed, doses of entinox and morphine to subdue the immediate pain from the fractures themselves.  After the initial throbbing pain of a fractured bone, which is enhanced by the muscle spasms and contractions that often accompany a break of a major limb bone, the pain starts to wear off to a gentle ache once the limb has been stabilized, protected and padded from any further movement or injury.  Where necessary the bone is reduced to the correct alignment.  The reduction of the bone can, without anesthetic, be as painful as initially fracturing the bone itself.  As indicated above my fractures were treated surgically to correct long-standing problems using metallic alloys fashioned into a sturdy plate screwed onto the bone, which help prevent stress shielding and allow the natural responsive dynamics of bone modelling to continue.  It should be stated here that fractures can also be treated conservatively with limb immobilization and pain relief given whilst the bone heals itself, if a good enough reduction and union can be carried out without the need for surgical intervention.

right humerus fracture 2014 july

Humerous triptych. Pre-surgical and post-surgical fixation with the use of a permanent titanium plate on the right humerus (upper arm) following the pathological fracture I sustained in an accident in July 2014. As a result of having McCune Albright Syndrome, and the associated Polyostotic Fibrous Dysplasia (PFD) disorder where bone tissue is replaced with a fibrous tissues, my skeletal system is weaker than normal with a higher bone cell turnover rate. Pathological lesions in the bone, which can already be naturally deformed in size and shape, can lead to fractures (so-called ‘ground glass’ visual which can be found on x-rays of PFD bone). If reproduced elsewhere please credit as appropriate and inform the author of this blog.

I said it was a long and patient journey because the majority of the time spent waiting to drive was spent silently healing, my head often buried in an article or a book whilst devouring coffee.  It took a long time for the two pieces of the bone shafts to become one again as the callus formed and bridged the fracture site, the woven bone that is initially laid down changing over time to lamellar, or mature, bone.  So much so that in some cases bone fracture sites can be completely remodeled with little noticeable sign of a historic break ever having taken place.  During this time I was shuttled from appointment to appointment as a passenger in my assigned vehicle, wondering what it was like to dictate the journey and the destination, what it was like to take control.

On Starting

You may think that I would be wary of driving due to the above described frailties that my body imposed on my life, but I was ready to go and ready to face the roads of my country.  I was, and remain, eager to explore the freedom of the road alongside the exploration of the idea that that freedom represents in itself .  Many of my friends had started driving at 17 or 18 years old, had passed their tests and then drove aimlessly to gain experience on the roads around the regional towns, only to abandon their cars as they themselves started undergraduate courses at universities in other towns and other cities across the country.  Running a car, and having the money to fund the fuel bill, insurance, road tax and other associated costs, was an expense that many didn’t have and didn’t need at that time in their lives.

I too had started to learn to drive at that age but I soon gave it up, frustrated at the confusing methods used by the teacher and wary of the upcoming femoral fixation surgeries that I faced at that time to limit what appeared to be regular interruptions of forced stillness in my life.  I was happy to ignore the need to drive for another decade or so, not needing to do it for my undergraduate and postgraduate university courses and happy to use the trains and other methods of public transport for work and pleasure.  Indeed I came to love the numerous hours spent commuting to volunteer placements, work, and journeys to see friends and old companions.  It was time to relax, to speak to other passengers, to sit and to read or simply to sit and to stare at the countyside unfolding before me.

As every driver informs every non-driver, the convenience of the car is the epitome of freedom over the strict timetable of public transport.  As an ardent user and lover of the train (the misery of the delay is trumped by the friends made in the carriage and by the regulars who recognize you in turn), I remained somewhat skeptical of this claim.  What I had not counted on, however, was how it actually felt to have that freedom when I drove myself, both for my own pleasure and as a matter of commuting to and from my workplace.  There have been times when I am driving down an empty flyover at 1am with the twinkle of the industrial north to my right and the disappearance of the work office behind me and, as the song I’m listening to reaches its crescendo, I feel somewhat at peace with the world around me.  This is of course the thrill of riding an empty road listening to your favorite music and soaking in every last note sounded and vocal moaned.  But driving with a crowd is different, but it is different for me in particular.

To Drive, To Think

The car, for me, and the act of driving the car, means that I can merge in with the public body at large in a seemingly innocuous manner.  When I walk I use crutches for short distances and, for longer distances, I need and use a manual wheelchair.  As such it is an obvious difference that is noticed immediately on sight, one which signifies that I am different in some significant way from the majority.  I have had, and continue to have, people treat me differently in ways that they would not my friends or family, say by speaking to someone other than to me even when it is I who have raised the question or query, or by treating me in such a way which invokes past experiences of relatives or loved ones in states of profound impairment, despite the fact that my experiences and needs are different; that is in such cases my personal agency as an actor, or individual, with my own views, worries and questions, is abated.  I am viewed as a representative, therefore I am not an individual.  There is no such differentiation between specialized, or adapted, vehicles for the physically impaired, or disabled, individuals on the road compared with ‘normal’ cars – we all flow into the same lane or road.  (The caveat here is, of course, parking bays where disabled bays, alongside mother and child bays, are given proximity priority but I am strictly talking of when the car is in motion).

As such I am intrigued by the possibility of me in the car being treated in a similar manner as to everyone else who is present on the road.  That our actions speak for themselves, rather than the prejudices present on seeing the physical self as a first judgement.

I’ve briefly touched on my own experiences here and a few ideas above, but I want to move forward to acknowledge a few thoughts that have swirled around my mind over the past year or so on the open road.  I have become somewhat intrigued by the notion of driving, and the path of the road, as a cultural symbol and as a personal experience.  As such the following are thoughts, somewhat vague in nature, of driving.

A Marker By The Side

During the first six months of my experience as a driver I passed a personal marker on the road to work, a curve in the dual carriageway where a silent, single fluttering jersey indicated a geographical spot where a young life had been cut short, the car skidding from the road late at night killing one of its two occupants.  The jersey by the side of the road aptly demonstrated both the family’s singular pain and the danger of driving without due regard for the road conditions, a memento of the often tumult path of life.  It acted as a constant reminder for me then, when I saw it throughout the different seasons of the year, and I remember it clearly now in my mind’s eye.  It is easy to be self-contained in a car if you are driving alone, thinking only of yourself and not of the actions that you yourself have on others and those around you.  That the road is open and easy to see.  Yet drivers, especially of cars, can be subdued too easily by the sheltering in the cage of metal and glass.  Too easy it is to shut out both the weather and the sound of the road, too easy to become disconnected from what is in front, to the side, and behind.  Death is the ultimate outcome of driving dangerously or incorrectly, each person who drives should understand that they are both responsible for themselves, any passengers, and for the safety of those of who the car comes near, be it other vehicle drivers or pedestrians.

A friend who rides a motorcycle near year-round has spoken of their wish that each person who learns to drive does so first on a motorbike, where every second must be concerned, and concentrated with, the movement of your bike and your body, where the dangers in the driving blind spot become that much more pronounced as there is no clear boundary or distinction between the body and the tarmac.  It is an interesting idea, I think, and it shows that although the majority of the road users in most countries are car and truck drivers there are different experiences of using the road out there.  That even though we may be all drivers, we do not each experience the same sense of driving or the same sense of security from the vehicles we choose to use to get from A to B.  It is my suggestion that this is the experience of the other in this environment, the one that car and truck drivers must take extra special care for motorcyclists (as well as cyclists) due to the physical differences in the size of the vehicle and the position of the body on top of the vehicle, rather than the notion of what it feels like to be on the inside of it.

Thoughts on Interior vs Exterior

However, within the confines of my personal anthropology of driving, there is also a need to define the personal space within the interior of the car and the exterior public face of the vehicle, i.e. the personalization of the interior as a representation of the identity versus the need to drive responsibly and react accordingly to the changes in weather, traffic density and normal, or exceptional, road hazards.

We have all, for instance, seen the personalized number plates or stickers attached to the exterior surface of cars, or the use of rosary beads dangling from the rear view mirror, possibly signifying a religious connection to Catholicism or perhaps simply a physical item in which to grab and to hold, to reassure and to connect.  These are markers of expressed individual and group identity through the modified material culture of the car, which could be symbolic of the beliefs of the individual and, possibly, an indicator of the nature of their personality, although there must also be a distinction between these leaps and not infer beyond the unreasonable.  These do of course differ dependent on the circumstances.  The cliché of a boy impressing a girl by driving fast is indicative of the use of the vehicle to express dominance or perceived masculinity and not the expression of the material culture of the individual within the car.  There are, as such, different signifiers at work when we consider the expression of identity with regards to vehicle ownership and use (see photograph below).

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‘Warning: if you value your life as much as I value this truck don’t mess with it!’. Seen in San Francisco in April 2015. Photograph, taken with a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

So what is in my car?  You can expect to find the odd physio stretching band, placed in the car from before I started to drive so I could exercise the muscles of the right arm on the way to and from work, to regain the majority of the extension of the antebrachium back.  (I have permanently lost the ability to fully extend my arm due to the somewhat intimidating and unnerving bend of the right humerus – it isn’t immediately noticeable, the bend, but when I point it out in person you may be surprised and somewhat horrified at what once was and now what is).  Look into the main storage box and you’ll find a whole heap of CD’s covering a fairly wide range of genres and musical styles, from the cut and thrust of Fugazi‘s 13 Songs to the emotional tape loops of Steve Reich‘s Different Trains and Guitar Counterpoint.  You could probably tell that the CD medium is the one in which I invest the most in for music listening just via the car haul of discs themselves.  I’m forever rotating my classic selection of favoured CD’s with new albums I’ve purchased more recently, such as Joanna Newsom‘s Divers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, or Sufjan Steven‘s hauntingly beautiful Carrie and Lowell album.  The car, now, has become one of my prime personal music venues, enhanced by the visuals on the road and the acuity of speaker-to-body distance.  The drive to and from work allows for the almost total immersion of sound to radiate around me, to envelope the body and invigorate the mind as I drive.

The expression of music is carried on in the material contents of the car by three or four worn drumsticks perched precariously in the front chair’s backseat pocket.  The drum sticks head and necks are pretty worn away, indicative of their active life beating the various tom toms, snares, and high hats of drum kits across the rehearsal and practice rooms of my home town.  If you dig a bit deeper it is quite possible you may find a roll of film (now I’m really harking back to pre-digital technology!), indicative of the ownership of my beloved cheap Pentax camera, which sometimes finds a temporary home in the car for when I am out and about; it is sometimes paired with my cheaper-still digital camera.  Nestled in the front passenger seat is a battered copy of Will Self’s experimental novel Shark, a copy of which I convince myself I will finish one day.  (Regardless of the growing stack of novels and non-fiction books that mount beside my bed.  Karl Ove Knausgård’s Min Kamp circle of books has taken my recent fancy as well as Janine Di Giovanni‘s more somber documentation of Syria’s ongoing destruction in her book The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria).  It is, I think, also an expression of the need to read in down times, where I find myself waiting for one reason or another.

So these are the two big things you may notice in my car – music and books, but what does the car and the road say about us from a non-individual status?  What laws do we follow and why, what are the roads laid out before us and why do we subscribe to a set of nationally, and internationally, prescribed laws?

State Expression

As such it could be highlighted here that the need to observe the rules of the road are, essentially, laid in law by whichever, or whoever, is in control of the land itself.  That is, the road, and the population who drive on that road, are obeying the rules in a manner prescribed by the ruling power and as such act in that way.  This could be a potentially reductionist approach to understanding how countries or cultures approach driving and the road network, however it is also an intriguing area of interest.  Allow me to expound briefly on the above point.  The expression of the state is manifested by the obligation of the driver to obey the rule of the law on the road, whilst the interior environment of the car allows for a personal reflection of the identity via its material culture.  Aligned to this are group identities expressed in this way – they can be cultural, religious, personal, or idiosyncratic in nature.  We’ll take a very quick global tour to explore some of this expressions of individuality within group expression.  I’ll also highlight some of the cultural restrictions placed on car drivers in different countries as it can be easy to think that each country’s laws are similar to one another, but cultural restrictions play an important part in this as a projection of the country’s laws and beliefs.

Road Changes & Cultural Restrictions

Road space rationing is the term used to describe the strategy to limit road users using particular methods of restriction.  These can include methods such as no-drive days, alternate day travel, and general restrictions on road access.  The strategies are used globally as temporary or permanent measures to decrease vehicle use and environmental impact, largely in major cities but also with increasing use in major industrial countries such as China and India.  A similar method to this is the use of car-sharing lanes where privileged road, or lane, access is given to cars containing more than one person as an incentive to cut single person travelling.

In London, England, the permanent Congestion Charge Zone was introduced in 2003 to combat the growing number of vehicles entering the center of the capital city, as a means of cutting down environmental damage and of limiting the sheer volume of traffic.  Bikes, and notorious Boris Bikes, have been particularly targeted as the green and safe way to travel within the city center alongside the extensive public transportation routes.  Transport for London (TfL) have stated that there has been a 10% reduction in vehicle traffic in the decade since the introduction of the congestion charge, which has found favor with a number of residents of the city.  In the capital of France, Paris, a temporary scheme whereby owners of cars with odd or even number plates were not allowed into the city on that particular day or days was in place during a particularly polluted period in 2014.  Temporary measures such as this are largely aimed at immediately cutting smog that threatens, or has, blanketed the city in question.

Other methods include closing down particular routes or roads during particular days.  In São Paulo, Brasil’s biggest city, a normally packed 3.5 km section of the Minhocão highway (nicknamed ‘the Big Worm’) is returned for the use of pedestrians and cyclists only each weekday evening, Saturday afternoons and full Sundays during the summer period.  Whilst Minhocão has been partially closed to vehicles for 26 years, there has been a new movement to close down Avenida Paulista in the city on Sundays as well.  The schemes in São Paulo is used as an urban reclamation of roads, or transportation routes, as a matter to regain urban walkways and increase the use of public transportation and finds similarities with a number of schemes across the globe.  For instance in New York City, USA, the reclamation of the 1.45 km long High Line, an old railroad renovated as an elevated walkway festooned with shrubbery, has seen it become a major attraction within the city itself in its own right.

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The car can become symbolic as in this case where it is the icon of a city forever on the move. The New York taxi is one such symbol and if encountered on its home turf is often accompanied by an incessant honking of the horn and the permanent background noise of a thousand ticking engines running over, forever stopping and starting. Photograph, on a digital camera, by the author. If used elsewhere please credit the author as appropriate.

New York City is both famous and infamous for its classic yellow cabs that litter the city.  To any driver from Europe, the roads of American cities can present a challenge as American cities are often built on the grid pattern, much like the ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom.  In such a busy and compacted city as New York this invariably means that the traffic never truly gets a chance to flow due to the traffic lights at each and every corner dictating who goes where when.  On a visit to the city that I was lucky enough to have last year I couldn’t help but notice the truly gigantic sounding board that the multi-storied buildings of Manhattan presented as the taxi drivers and drivers throughout the city incessantly honked their horn.  It surprised me, but also moved me in a way I had not expected – I was in the city of the movies, arguably the heart of the country itself in all of its architectural splendor and Freudian intimidation alongside the metaphorical American Dream representations.

As I come to the conclusion of this post I have presented a quick introduction to some of my thoughts, rounding down to international approaches to do with the increase in the number of the drivers and the damage wrought by diesel and petrol hungry engines in city centers, not to mention the natural environment.  Yet there is much more that I feel I ought to write, I haven’t touched on the interesting subculture of young male drivers in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in which steam is let off by drifting (or Tafheet) and other associated vehicular activities, not the mention the incredibly strict restrictions placed on females in the country (females are forbidden from driving, although this is not illegal per se, it is heavily policed with punishments handed out for females caught driving).  Nor have I mentioned the fascinating subculture of bōsōzoku in Japan, which centers around the customization of cars and motorcycles.

The post describing these subcultures can perhaps wait for another day as this post has reached a fairly substantial length already.

Disengaging the Engine

So those are my brief thoughts on a personal anthropology of driving with a few nods to international views and explorations.  Nothing substantial, just a brief overlay of ideas that percolate through my brain as I slip on my seat belt, engage the engine and accelerate away onto the tarmac before me and into the night ahead of me.

Influences & Further Reading

BBC & British Library Sound Archive. 2015. Noise: A Human History. An Ever Noisier World. Episode 29 of 30. BBC Radio 4.

Martin, D. L., Harrod, R. P. & Pérez, V. R. 2014. Bioarchaeology: An Integrated Approach to Working with Human Remains. New York: Springer.

Robb, P. 2005. A Death In Brazil: A Book of Omissions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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