On a certain level, I realized that death was a very real possibility.
I was standing outside an unfamiliar barn, I was cold under a horror-story gray sky, and I was a child. I don’t remember how new of a child I was, only that Golden Corral’s buffet charged children one cent for every pound of body weight at the time, and I ate for less than a buck. I was currently on the quest for some horsepower. Child me — like adult me — was always on the hunt for more horse for less money, and so my family had driven me several hours to test-ride a new possibility.
“I gallop him five miles a day,” the guy told me. “I just let him have his head because it’s not like I can stop him anyway.”
The ad had promised that this horse was an athletic little Arab with the potential to do many things for you: hunt, jump, prepare taxes. In the flesh, he was a hell-eyed bastard muscled like a government experiment. Horse and horse monger both wore the same glitteringly puerile expression as Bill Paxton’s character in Weird Science.
“You could race him, even,” the guy added, which was the first concrete proof of his insanity. Suggesting a non-papered pony might be suitable for racing is akin to suggesting that the Kia Sportage you’re considering might be good for gymnastics. It represents either a breath-taking ability to think outside the box or a tangible inability to see reality’s boxes in the first place.
Behind him, the horse flexed its muscles and breathed some sulfur into the leaden day.
I was afraid.
I was afraid a lot back then. Humans are fragile and have parts that squish out if you mishandle them, and as a child, I spent a lot of time considering the various ways that might happen.
I got on the horse anyway.
This would be a fine place for an inspirational tale of how, despite first appearances, horse and I formed a lasting bond that survived to this day. Instead, a smash-cut montage of various high-speed horse behavior played in fast forward, ending only when I performed the pulley rein, a horse-stopping measure so extreme that it is considered a swear word on some planets.
I did not buy the horse.
Fast forward to the present. Now I’m 34 and I’ve traded my problem horses for problem cars because cars don’t have to learn how to love again when you leave town for months at a time. Well, sometimes they do, but in this scenario, it’s more ethical to use shock therapy on cars than horses. It has been decades since I’ve been meaningfully afraid and also since I could eat at Golden Corral for a buck.
My inability to feel fear in a measurable way is now often mistaken for genuine competence, and as such, I frequently get asked probing questions by my youthful readers. Top billing goes to “how can I do what you do for a living?” followed by “have you been in jail?” but after that is “how can I be less afraid of driving?”
Moving past the first two to the third: anxious drivers. We already know that Millennials aren’t getting their driver’s licenses with the same eagerness as previous generations. Possible explanations for their driving reticence have poured in from all quarters: money! Ride-sharing! Lack of driving culture!
No, my friend. They’re scared shitless.
Last week, I did my own brief and scientific 24-hour survey:
Teens? Afraid? What is this blasphemy? What of our own ragged and reckless childhoods? Why, in my day, we rode in the backs of station wagons without seat belts. In my day the passenger window was always rolled down so our mountain lions could pant into the wind. In my day, we drove Pontiacs, and we liked it.
It’s a different time, Pappy. The world’s an uncertain place. The climate agitates. The EU shudders. Alan Rickman is dead, for God’s sake. Anything could happen.
I’ve often contemplated what the vector was for this epidemic of paralyzing fear. I reckon part of it is the urgent press on young people to excel—hey, sit down in the back, there, I know what you’re going to say, and it’s condescending. I mean to excel in all ways. To keep up with the Joneses in every department: to have as many friends, as many likes, as large a vocabulary, as nice a car, as feng shui a house, as much happiness.
In a world where our fun-educational-philanthropic hobbies are telegraphed through brilliant Facebook photos in ever-increasing megapixel clarity, it’s easy to compare your life to someone else’s and find your level of extracurriculars wanting. In a world where your 12-year-old neighbor is making flawless makeup tutorials for ten thousand fans on YouTube, can you afford to apply for your first job without any on? And school—scientists couldn’t develop a more cunning stress tests for humanity than overpopulated super-schools with sleep-killing schedules.
Moreover, the penalty for getting it wrong in this culture—where it is a slippery, arbitrary quantity—is dire.
It seems to me that this culture not only provokes anxiety, but it also promotes the use of anxiety as an escape. Anxiety becomes a shorthand method of opting out, the only way to not have to play the game. It’s a white flag on a relentless social battlefield. Time out! Panic attack.
If you’re thinking this isn’t new, they made this movie, it’s called Heathers, young adulthood has always been fraught, I’ve also thought so. But the difference is that now we’re allowed to say it. In the old days, if an activity made you anxious, you sure as shit didn’t say anything about it. You cried on the inside like Clint Eastwood and then you went and did it anyway. There’d be plenty of time for processing all those feelings later, in your middle age, by torpedoing your marriage and buying a convertible Corvette like the rest of your generation.
But now young people can be anxious and say they’re anxious. There’s no longer a stigma to admitting it. On the one hand, this is beautiful. Name the monster and you can kill it. But on the other hand... people aren’t killing it. They’ve named it and now they’re keeping it as a permanent fixture of the household. It lurks in the living room with its pretend immortality. Will you kill it for me, please? They ask.
This is one spider you’ve got to kill on your own.
My survey asked “Non-drivers, for science, why don’t you drive?”
One of the comments to the survey replied, “I’m scared I’m going to die.”
Their fear isn’t unfounded, of course. 2015 killed more people in traffic than the past half-century in a major way—fatalities up 8 percent compared with the minuscule 0.5 percent increase from the year before and the actual 3 percent decrease the year before that.
Why the rise? People won’t stop texting, drunk driving is somehow still a thing people do, my neighbor won’t wear his seatbelt, and Mustangs keep trying to leave Cars & Coffee. Plus, in 2015, we Americans put one hundred billion more miles at ever increasing speeds on the road than we did in 2014. You can’t throw a rock without hitting an insurance claim.
Look, cars are fucking death machines.
Which prompts the question: why aren’t all of us pissing ourselves over those statistics?
Here’s why I’m not afraid to get in my car: It turns out that the vast majority of traffic accidents are preventable. Hell, a full 50 percent of those fatalities in the statistics above were people who weren’t wearing seat belts. One third were drunk driving related. Yet another sizable chunk falls under “failure to yield”; i.e., running stop signs and stop lights. As this one guy from Dubai notes, “Ninety percent of our road accidents are related to bad driving behavior.”
I respect the shit out of the 3,000 pound weapons I drive in every day. You should, too. But that isn’t the same thing as being afraid.
Here’s what I would recommend to turn that frown upside down.
EDUCATION: Driving’s a skill, not a birthright. You’re scared shitless when you first get into a car? Good. You’re the nascent pilot of a fucking death machine, so watch where you’re pointing that thing.
Also, you suck. Driving is a skill, and like any other skill, it has to be learned and practiced. This does not mean simply getting more seat time. We’ve all ridden with that one aunt who simply never stops being an obliviously terrifying driver, despite years behind the wheel. Like any skill, you don’t get better merely by performing the same action again and again: you learn by practicing good behaviors.
Back to school, guys. They make defensive driving classes for teens, often heavily subsidized, and also accident-avoidance courses for adults. Once you learn how to scream sideways around a skid pad in your daily driver, the interstate will seem pacific.
RISK MANAGEMENT: This phrase was inserted into every other sentence when I was learning how to ride a motorcycle. “Risk management” basically means you can, within reason, choose how much danger you’re in by adjusting parameters.
If you’re a timid driver, you’re only asking for some therapy-inducing trauma by immediately throwing yourself at Los Angeles traffic: that’s like trying to beat the boss level the first time someone hands you a video game console. Stick to low speed limit and low traffic roads until you become more comfortable with your automotive exoskeleton. After you gain confidence, you can add in more challenging elements, like high-speed merge lanes and Acura drivers.
STAY OFF PROBLEM HORSES: Don’t get on a horse you can’t stop. There’s plenty of time for difficult vehicles once you learn how to live with the easy ones.
BE PREDICTABLE: Iceman said it best: You’re everyone’s problem! That’s because every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous. Fearful drivers put themselves in fearful situations by doing stupid, reactionary shit. They miss an exit or accidentally run a stop sign and then, flustered, fail to check their mirrors before changing lanes or slam on their brakes in the middle of an intersection. Look, I know that the temptation is to keep up with traffic whether or not you feel good about it, but it’s far better for anxious drivers to be slow and capable than fast and erratic.
Predictable driving saves lives. Check your mirrors, be methodical, use your signals, stay in the right lane when you can. Remember Iceman’s great wisdom: your ego’s writing checks your body can’t cash.
AW, FUCK IT: Socially anxious people continue to be socially anxious behind the wheel, and as such, get derailed when they perceive that other drivers are upset with them. Then they do the stupid stuff listed above. Don’t let honking drivers rattle you; you’re never going to see them again. Let ‘em fume. Action, not reaction, grasshopper.
GENERALIZED BRAVERY: As a culture, we’ve lost our tolerance for being afraid. People say, “I’m anxious,” and accept that it’s a destination. Game over, no argument, do not pass go, do not collect $200, stay home, stay safe. But the truth is that the only way through anxiety is through it. You can be afraid of the horse and still get on it. You can be anxious about driving and still work on getting better at it. Moreover, you can be anxious about a thing and learn to love it even while being anxious.
Be afraid, but also be happy, and at some point, you might find that only the happiness remains.
Maggie Stiefvater is a novelist, musician, car enthusiast and occasional rally driver based in Virginia.