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Riding in cars without choice

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MAY 30, 2012

I cried the first time I drove on a highway.

After I made one sharp turn after another around the backroads of Butte County, my stepdad told me to make a slight left turn, mentioning something about monkeys and freeways. I merged onto Highway 99 thinking it would be just another empty road. I thought we were going to die.

This past week alone, The Daily Californian reported the car-related deaths of two Berkeley alumni and one graduate’s son. Across the country in Massachusetts, a recent Yale graduate died in a freeway accident. Three of these victims were in their early 20s, and one was a 6-year-old boy.

Death in the summertime. In 2009, 11 million car accidents occurred in the United States. According to the US Census Bureau, however, less than 1 percent, or 36,000 accidents, resulted in death. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, 13 million automobiles were sold in 2008.

Nomads by nature, we are travelers by design. Cars give us freedom, letting us function with destinations in mind and wander within oblivion. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want, with cars. Without them, we are relegated to shady transit schedules and limited physical endurance. Go forth and wander, bumper to bumper.

Five winters ago, my mom and I were driven off a curving mountain road by a white SUV. The snow had just been shoveled off the road earlier that morning, and my mom was on her way to Sacramento to take the U.S. citizenship test. I was going to visit a friend in nearby Brownsville. The course of 100 miles doesn’t seem like a journey if it only takes two hours.

Swerving left to avoid running into the SUV that was taking up the entire road, our Subaru Forester fell into the shoveled snow. As the car hurtled forward, my mom looked at me and said, “I’m sorry.” Bewildered at her apology, I furrowed my eyebrows into a “what!” as I noticed that we were headed for a tree. I thought we were going to die.

Glimpses of death by way of car accidents. We were driving to the beach on my friend’s ninth birthday with her mom, dad and two other friends, singing “This Old Man” and eating quail eggs when we hit an old man riding a bicycle. He lay face down in a pool of his own blood by the time we got out of the car. I thought he was going to die.

My friends and I got our palms read later that morning. Her mom drove the old man to the hospital without us, probably fearing we would be traumatized by the man bleeding to death in the car. While her father smoked a cigarette out in the rice field, a rice farmer invited us into her hut, where she traced the lines of our palms like lines we would traverse someday.

I should be married by now, at the ripe, fertile age of 22. I think she even said two children by 24, though she did get one of my friends right. The fortune teller never mentioned the old man, and I never found out if the old man survived the crack in his head. We were too scared to ask more than once and too excited to find starfish plastered on the seashore.

On road trips to beaches, cities, small towns and forests, cars let us unlock what’s been open all along. While the hubbub of dense urbanities and spacious suburbs contains most of our gas mileage to predictable radii, the likes of speakeasies and marinas cry for our attention. In spite of the risks that come with owning a car — temptations of drunk driving and karaoke singing — we are meant to drive more than walk.

Forgetting internationally acclaimed and carefully planned cities like San Francisco and New York, where pedestrians and other nutjobs rule the road, the United States and its continental subsidiaries continue to develop infrastructure to accommodate modern traveling men. Modern freeways surrounded by manufactured homes instead of trees, men traveling in pools of cars instead of trains, with places to go and people to see.

I cried the first time I drove on a highway until the waitress at Tong Fong Low asked me if I wanted more water. Quenching my thirst, I thought of 10 summers ago — the times in Loyola Memorial Park, a cemetery in Metro Manila, where my dad taught my brothers how to drive while I held the hands of my brothers who waited to drive the stick next.

In the booth across from the parking lot, my stepdad reassured me that driving would become second nature with more practice. I missed sitting in the passenger’s seat.

Contact Pilar Huerta at 


MAY 30, 2012