The Freedom of the Open Road: Why Driving is a Great American Pastime

traffic safety

Almost everyone knows the feeling. Kids applying for learners’ permits; parents setting out on roadtrips; truckers in the midst of long hauls; couples out for a Sunday drive. It’s a unique feeling. It is generated by the unusual relationship between man and machine. When the foot pushes the pedal. When the hand turns the wheel. When the engine revs, an orchestra of machinery building, rising, unified, towards a crescendo of combustion that spins the wheels that turn the tires that grip the asphalt and fling us forward at speeds faster than we can really even afford to contemplate, as we operate the machine from a comfortable seat, under the constant breeze of air conditioning.

In that special moment, we are not quite on the ground, and not quite in the air, but carried at a high momentum towards a definite destination, or towards one we simply don’t know yet. The feeling of driving a motor vehicle – car, truck, or motorcycle – is one of liberation. Maybe years of driving dull that excitement a bit, but every now and again it strikes us. And we’re reminded of why we love to drive, or once did. Before it became a chore.

Driving is not just about point A to point B; if it was, we’d all drive identical vehicles; same color, same design, all in gray, metallic unison, with no variation. No, driving is more than that. It is a true pastime, and, in America, it is a national pastime. Something that is borne out by the immense variety of vehicles on the road, and the even greater variety of their drivers. How we drive and what we drive is now a part of our personality; but how did it get that way? Or, perhaps more importantly, why did it get that way?

Here are a few potential reasons.

Driving is an Escape

Imagine if you got off work at the same time as a bunch of your coworkers and you all just started walking in the same direction. Is that what people in medieval times did? Did they leave their jobs at the mill or carpentry shop and all just walk together, side by side, towards home?

What a drag! It’s much better to hop in your preferred vehicle and enjoy a nice drive home, listening to the radio, perhaps, or rolling down the windows if the weather is nice, or just enjoying a particularly beautiful stretch of road.

The American frontier is an important element in our national history and spirit, and while driving is perhaps not always as exciting as exploring uncharted territory or as rewarding as building a log cabin on untouched land, there is something to be said for the independent spirit of drivers, for the rituals of the road, for the great highways of our country and the immense distances we cross on them. Driving, while part of the everyday, is also a way to escape it. Sometimes, you just want to get in your car and drive away.

Driving is Fun

Look, flat out, there’s no denying that it is fun to drive a vehicle, to drive it fast, and to drive it well. Even if you aren’t packing a ton of horsepower, it’s fun to drive what you’ve got to the best of your ability, and make the most of your vehicle’s capabilities.

Just look at how popular the sport of racing is, or how frequently car chases feature in action movies. We love to go fast, because it’s fun. Even kids love riding in go-karts and the like. The mere act of driving is enjoyable and pleasant for us and we, as Americans, enjoy having fun in our own way, in the comfort of our own vehicles, if possible. It’s a wonderful thing.

Driving Feels Right

The bottom line about driving as a national pastime is that driving simply feels right. It feels natural. Sure, human beings didn’t used to drive vehicles, but they drove other things – they drove horses, chariots, wagons. They drove boats and ships. The instinct to drive, to move faster than we normally can, has long been apart of the human experience, and America, with our impressive interstate highway system and complex weave of urban traffic centers exemplifies driving as part of living. It has been all but fully integrated into our lives.

Our vehicles are now like extensions of us, and maybe that was meant to be. Maybe we weren’t meant to walk everywhere, to trudge our way through the mud and dirt. Maybe we weren’t meant to shuffle along sweltering in the sun. Maybe we were meant to blast over plains and deserts, to zip through forests and fields, to whip around canyons and mountainsides.

Maybe we were meant to drive.