ANOTHER VIEW

A young driver humbles the car

A seven-year-old boy who hops into the family Buick and drives himself to school tells us a lot about our relationship with the car

CHARLES GORDON May 29 1989
ANOTHER VIEW

A young driver humbles the car

A seven-year-old boy who hops into the family Buick and drives himself to school tells us a lot about our relationship with the car

CHARLES GORDON May 29 1989

A young driver humbles the car

A seven-year-old boy who hops into the family Buick and drives himself to school tells us a lot about our relationship with the car

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

At the age of 7, Jason Richer is on the way to becoming a national hero, and it is well to ask why. Already, Jason’s story has appeared at the top of page 1 in The Ottawa Citizen and in newspapers across the country. He has been interviewed on As It Happens, and heaven knows where else his exploits will turn up in the days ahead.

The exploits in question were not all that uncommon for the average person. But the average person is not seven years old. And the average seven-year-old does not get into the family Buick, start it up and drive it 1.2 km to school. According to a policeman in Cornwall, Ont., where Jason’s little drive took place, Jason did well, after an undistinguished start, which consisted of bumping into the garage door. After that, he stopped for two traffic lights and a stop sign, used his turn signals correctly, parked the car at the school with the hazard lights flashing and was waiting calmly in the principal’s office when the police arrived.

“From what I was told,” said a policeman, “he wasn’t the worst driver on the road.” Why is this news? A kid gets into a car, drives it a bit, and nobody is hurt. It is a classic reversal of an old news axiom: that nobody is interested in airplanes that don’t crash. Here was a car that didn’t crash—at least not much—and it is on page 1. For some reason, a seven-year-old successfully driving a car is a source of fascination.

And why? It may be a case of simple nostalgia. We can remember how we felt as small children about the car, about the urge we felt to drive it, and the fear that went along with the urge. So we hear about Jason and make the trip along with him in our imaginations.

Another reason for the appeal of Jason’s story is the fact that we really think driving a car is difficult, so the fact that a child does it

strikes us as unusual in the extreme. Of course, it suits us to think that driving a car is difficult. Most of us have trouble doing it and would like to think that others do, too. If we thought driving a car was easy, the fact that a seven-year-old could do it would be on page E9, if it made the paper at all.

Perhaps the most plausible reason for our interest in, and support of, a seven-year-old boy who drives a car is that we hate cars and are delighted that a mere child can triumph over one. It is of interest that the coverage of Jason’s drive did not have a disapproving tone. The authorities quoted did not dwell on how terrible it was that a seven-year-old would go for a drive in the family car. Rather, they talked, with some sympathy, about his reasons for taking the car (it was raining) and his apparent competence behind the wheel, which has already been mentioned. And no one talked, with sympathy or otherwise, about the condition of the car, which, after all, did come in contact with the garage door.

Canadians have a love-hate relationship with the car. The love part comes mostly from those who want a car because they have never owned one. The only other people who love cars are people who are about to buy a new one and

think, for some reason, that the next one is going to be better than the one they have now. The hatred of cars . . . Well, it is difficult to know where to start. People hate cars because they don’t work as well as they should. They break down. They stall. They run out of gas. They bump into things. They cost money that could better be spent on furnaces and higher education.

People hate cars because they are a burden. They have to be stored. They have to be insured. They have to be parked. Precious minutes, even hours, are lost looking for a place to park a car. Cars rust. They have to have their filters changed.

People in neighborhoods hate cars. From the time the first car drove through a neighborhood, it was hated—because people knew more cars would follow it. When more cars did, they roamed the neighborhood in fuming packs, honking their horns and looking for places to park. Soon, when enough cars roamed the neighborhood, gas stations sprang up in places where parks and churches used to be, and paved driveways replaced lawns.

People hate cars because they are a menace. Cars bang into people and each other, and they emit exhaust fumes. The annual death toll is well known. The cost to the environment is becoming better known each day.

People hate themselves when they are in cars. Behind the wheel, they become angry easily and quickly. Even people who never become angry in supermarket lineups and government office buildings become angry in cars. Behind the wheel, they mutter and curse. They lose their patience. They allow a traffic jam on the way to work to ruin their morning. They allow the absence of a parking spot to ruin their day. They allow a traffic jam on the way home to ruin their evening.

People hate each other in cars. A person is at his most aggressive state in traffic. He will not yield to another driver. He will risk injury, to himself or others, to beat another driver to a parking space. He will honk his horn when another driver waits a millisecond too long at a changing light. He will give the finger to a complete stranger who honks at him.

We are now into the season for cars. Every year at this time, millions of people pile into their cars and form huge knots of cars that are supposed to be going into the country but are in fact going nowhere. Ironically, each car in the traffic jam is in the control of a driver who has but one aim in mind—to drive, somehow, to a place where there are no cars. Two days later, they will all be back again, in the same huge knots, going nowhere, but facing the other way—toward the city.

We, the drivers of those cars, will hate them and hate the other cars, too. And we will hate ourselves for being at the mercy of cars. The story of Jason Richer wins a place in our hearts because cars have made us tired, grouchy and frustrated and because he has demonstrated that the car is not such a big deal after all. A little kid can get in one and drive it away, obeying the traffic signals and using the turn signals correctly. The car is humbled. There is hope.

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen. His latest book, At the Cottage, is published this month by McClelland & Stewart.