Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Tess Lynch

Tess Lynch is a writer and actor living in Los Angeles

April 14th, 2010 11:00 PM

I Have Two Points to Make Here

I have two points to make here. The first is that driving is terrifying. The second is that if I were Toyota, I would have two black eyes from punching myself in the face this week.

I'll elaborate.

I am a cautious driver. This is not because I am polite, but because I am afraid; I know how I was driving when I first got my license after a couple of tries, and I assume everyone else on the road is driving that way. They are texting. They are eating a #2 meal from McDonald's. Once I saw a woman doing the crossword puzzle on the Cahuenga pass, where the speed limit is like 50 MPH. People eat complicated tacos off their laps while driving with their knees and putting on mascara with their hands. Once you get away with this kind of bullshit, you're thinking (I assume), "Hey, now driving can be a good time to catch up on all that stuff I like to do! I was wasting all this time before just concentrating on the other dozens of cars darting around and braking suddenly, but now I'm finishing this John Banville novel! How completely efficient and not at all dangerous of me!"

That's not even it, though. It's not always within your control. There is no guarantee that being a good driver protects you from accidents. In fact, it almost seems like most accidents are random; it just depends on which split-second you decide to sneeze or try to make the light. Do you ever, when you're driving, have one of those moments where you see yourself driving from outside of your own body and you just wish you could incorporate whatever part of you is watching yourself back into your brain so you could be completely focused on driving? Do you ever pull over and take a deep breath and think, "There is no reason why people should be allowed to drive big metal boats that could explode?" Five minutes later you're fine and you've lowered your seat and adjusted your mirror and realized that may have been the whole problem. But the fear is real, and worse, it's justified.

Did I mention that once I rode cross country? I did not drive at all. You would have hated to take this trip with me. I ate my #2 McDonald's meal and would not give the driver any fries. "Hands on the wheel," I said, dangling a pickle slice over my gaping maw. "Wow these fries are fresh."

But what's worse than the general fear of driving is when you realize that your car might not be completely reliable; after all, most newer cars operate via computer, and some glitches mystify mechanics (i.e. the "check engine" light that won't go off, why your halogen headlights fail even when the bulbs are good, why a freaking accelerator pedal would be immune to brake override). Just drive a Toyota if you want a generous dash of uncertainty; I do. I love my Camry very much, but I'm also afraid of it, like a man you marry and then realize has a dark past. I traded in my VW for my Camry and just about ten seconds later heard about the "sticky brake pedal issue." My reaction, because I need to continue to drive without fear-barfing on Franklin, was something along the lines of "Be ready to yank the brake pedal up with your claws as soon as this baby gains speed." You use this lexicon when you're needing a little reassurance about your own abilities. You need to picture telling someone over a glass of wine, "Sure, the car took off, man. But luckily I had my wits about me and I just used these badass biceps to pry up that accelerator. I guess those other drivers weren't as clever and strong as I am, poor jerks. Let's drink to the weak, the accidental Thelma and Louises! No, it's not funny. No, I know. It's not funny." That's the trick with cars: you have to trick yourself a little bit and be unrealistically casual, because otherwise, you'd take the subway and, unfortunately, if you live in LA, there is no subway.

So of course there's the brake thing, which by the way Toyota was warned about and decided to ignore/hide, and which has cost them $4.4 billion. What would you do if you ran a company and this happened to you? You don't say, "Back off dude, you should be so lucky to drive a zoomy vehicle. Ditch your floor mats and can it." Why? Because whether the defect is your fault or a lot of eerily coincidental human error, there is no denying that the problem is Toyota's to fix or exacerbate. I guess I was under the impression that Toyota was secretly taking to heart the message of the recall and overseeing their production as Santa might his elves, carefully and with some kind of super-human insight, adhering to the strictest of standards, golden-hearted and moral.

And then I saw, on the LA Times yesterday, an article about a Consumer Reports rating for the Lexus GX. The rating was "Don't Buy: Safety Risk." They save this rating for things like tin cans on wheels made of aluminum foil and cars which house raccoons in their transmissions. I am pretty sure that a Radio Flyer with a recycled transmission taped to the bottom would at least get one star. And it wasn't even the brakes this time. It was the toppling-over issue. THE TOPPLING OVER ISSUE. You know what happens to cars when they roll over? Why don't you ask Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti. How can it be that Consumer Reports, an organization that I would think doesn't have super-secret knowledge of how to expose car flaws but rather just sort of does the same standard tests on everything, could catch an issue like a car being prone to hand-stands when Toyota, a car manufacturer facing billions of dollars of loss due to an oversight, could miss it? Didn't that cross their minds? I barely know long division but I'm pretty sure that I would have thought, "I would like to not cause anyone to die, ever again, with these metal beasts I make." Or I would have had the integrity to at least burn all the Lexus GX's in big piles that spelled out I'M SORRY EVERY1 instead of hawking the death traps, the suicide raps.

A Stanford professor named Clifford Nass looked into the evolution of car-driver communications a few years ago, and came up with the concept of a human-voiced GPS system that would gather information about you (where you go, what you listen to, even how you drive) to deliver to advertisers and insurance agencies. He also posited that this new GPS might help you be a better driver. He explained that:

That computer masquerading as a person, seemingly residing somewhere in your car, might be interested in more than mere facts. As it gets to know your voice, your facial expressions (from an onboard camera) and your style, it could adapt its conversation to your mood, just as a human passenger would. If the computer behind the synthetic voice sensed that you were tense, as the car's sensors were silently warning the computer that your driving was becoming erratic, the voice might attempt to calm you down. It would project just the right tone and employ the perfect turn of phrase.

If we can't trust car manufacturers to keep us safe, at least we could hope that our cars would get in on the game: create a false sense of security, earn our trust as would a human being who appeared to understand complex problems like fear and anxiety and obnoxious weaving bicyclists, and to tell us that we'll be okay, even as we see smoke rising from the hood and realize it's time to flex our formidable muscles and unstick the brake pedal. "In a quarter of a mile, left turn on Cahuenga. Don't worry. You will survive the crash."


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