by Jill Cloutier
My car had broken down for the last time. I waved goodbye as the AAA truck towed my rusting 1983 Pontiac away, one hazard light blinking a jerky farewell.
“I don’t care if it’s crushed into a can. I’ve had it. It’s going to the dump,” I vowed to myself as I stood uncertainly in the waning light outside Bruce’s Auto Maintenance. I had made him rich in the past few years. However, our relationship was about to end, for I had just heard the 14 most horrible words any car owner can hear; “It would be more expensive to fix this car than to buy another one.”
I was still in shock. I stared down at my feet standing on the black asphalt. How was I going to get home? It had been so long since I had walked in the city. I was used to being in my car.
I knew I had to buy another one. Quickly. Cars have always represented freedom to me. Like most Americans, I eat, drink, listen to music, sing, hug, and kiss in cars. When I have a car, I feel independent. My car had been my second home. It was interior decorated with seat covers, pendants hanging from the mirror, air fresheners, and back rests. On the outside, it wore bumper stickers that told people what my opinions were. After my car’s demise, I felt like I was missing a part of my body. How was I going to get to work on Monday? Or to the gym on Tuesday? I began to panic. I started walking down the street vaguely recalling that there was a bus system in this town. That meant there had to be a bus stop somewhere. I wandered past stores I had never looked at before. Traveling at 40 miles an hour doesn’t give you much time to notice what is on either side of the road.
While waiting for the bus, I bought a paper, hurriedly turned to the classified and began my search.
“BMW, Buick, Chevrolet, Ford…” I shook my head. There were so many to choose from. “Honda, Lexus, Nissan, Porsche, Reality? What kind of car is that?”
According to the ad, the Reality was “a car designed to take drivers into the 21st century and beyond. A car so unusual, it will change your life forever. Once you have been inside a Reality, you will never view driving in the same way again.”
I thought about how a shiny new Reality would raise my self esteem. I could drive with pride, instead of being embarrassed whenever a nice car drove by.
I arrived at the car lot the next day filled with excitement and a lot of important questions. “Would I be able to afford this? What color should I get? Does it come with air conditioning?”
Just then I was greeted by Frank Lee, the Reality sales associate. Frank assured me that the Reality was just what I and every driver needed. He quickly ushered me past the immaculate sports utility vehicles, shiny new trucks, and sparkling sedans. His face lit up as he led me to a gray piece of metal practically hidden from view in the back of the car lot. “This car could be the start of a driving revolution!” he proclaimed.
It didn’t look promising to me. The Reality was ugly. It looked small and misshapen; part VW Bug, part teacup from the Mad Hatter ride at Disneyland. Except that the cup had escaped and grown a roof and wheels.
“Frank,” I decided to be tactful. “it’s not what I had in mind.”
He noticed my lack of enthusiasm and said, “The reason the Reality isn’t so pretty to look at on the outside,” he motioned me closer, “is because all of its amenities are on the inside. We spared no expense on the extras, well, you’ll see.” He opened the door and pointed to the dashboard. It was huge. It was more like a dash wall covered with dials, gauges, and diagrams. I stared at them in awe.
“What are all of these for?” I asked. “This reminds me of the cockpit of a plane.”
Frank looked excited. “Oh, yes, since about one hundred and ninety million motor vehicles hit the road everyday in the U.S., we thought drivers should know exactly what is going on as they drive.
“What do you mean?”
“Pick a dial, any dial and I’ll tell you what it’s for.” He turned the key and they all lit up. I pointed to one. “That is the oil meter. It shows how much oil and gasoline your car uses, starting from the minute you drive it off the lot. Americans drive almost three trillion miles a year and in the process use about a billion gallons of motor oil and 40 percent of the world ’s gasoline. In Los Angeles, residents drive 142 million miles a day. That is the distance to Mars!The average car consumes about 400 gallons of gas yearly. If you’re an average driver, you probably drive about 12 thousand miles a year and use 24 barrels of oil.”
“Look at this.” He pointed to a dial that had a miniature earth rotating in the center. “When you fill up your tank, the region of the world where your gas comes from lights up! That way you know what area of the Earth was impacted by your petroleum consumption.” He pointed to a spot on the map. “This is the Persian Gulf, Middle East area. 65 percent of proven global oil reserves are found here. Most nations in this area have 40 to 75 years of proven reserves left. Over here,” he showed me Europe, the Soviet Union, and the U.S., where “less than 20 percent of the world’s oil is found. These areas have about 25 years of reserve left.”
“What’s that for?” I pointed to a dial that had a picture of a pipe on it.
“That measures how much exhaust your car emits. Six of the seven chief air pollutants come from motor vehicles. When fuel is burned, most of it becomes exhaust. Tailpipe exhaust is the single largest source of air pollution. A World Health Organization study estimates that air pollution will cause eight million deaths worldwide by the year 2020. In Los Angeles, cars produce 70 to 80 percent of all air pollution.”
“This,” he tapped one of the largest meters on the dash, “is the animal-o-meter. It shows what critters have been killed by your car. It gives the body count under each picture.” I peered at the meter. There were small images of a butterfly, insect, bird, cat, possum, raccoon, skunk, fish, dolphin, and one space that simply read “miscellaneous,”
I shuddered. “Frank, isn’t this kind of morbid?”
Frank asked me, “Did you know that world-wide about five hundred thousand people die each year in automobile accidents? Three million more are seriously injured. Death rates for motor vehicle travel are about ten times higher than for other forms of transportation, such as airplanes and trains.” I shook my head in disbelief. Frank continued, “Two times as many Americans have died on highways than have died in all the wars the U.S. has been involved in since 1776. Each year in the U.S., about 40 to 50 thousand people are killed by or in cars. That’s roughly the same amount of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. 17 percent of those killed are pedestrians and bicyclists,” he grimaced, “about 8,000 every year.”
“More Americans die each year in or by automobiles than they do because of drugs or guns! Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans two to 24 years old. In Germany in 1992,” Frank told me, “five times as many people died from cars as they did from illegal drugs. But, do you ever hear anyone telling us to ‘Just Say No’ to motor vehicles?” Frank shook his head.
“And that’s just people. Road kills,” he sighed, “take about a million animals a day in the U.S. Nearly 400 million mammals are killed yearly by automobiles and that figure doesn’t include insects and animals who die unnoticed.”
I pointed to the meter. “I can see cars hitting possums and skunks, but how can they affect fish and dolphins?”
“Roads and parking lots produce a lot of poison run-off : oil, gas, and other chemicals which can then be washed into the ocean and other bodies of water. This affects not only water quality, but also the creatures who live there. Million of gallons of oil are dumped into the environment each year by Americans changing their own oil. A lot of it finds its way into the ocean. In the U.S., the yearly run-off of car excretions, plus the disposal of used motor oil sends more oil into the water each year than even the largest tanker spill.”
“Do cars affect plants, too?” I asked, pointing to a gauge that had pictures of corn, wheat, and trees.
“Yes, car exhaust damages them. Smog ozone, which is a component of exhaust, is toxic to plants and destroys a variety of crops. It reduces the plants’ rate of photosynthesis and can also stunt the growth of trees and shrubs. Photo-chemical smog has been estimated to yield losses of 1.9 to 4.5 billion dollars per year for corn and wheat crops. Plus, here in the U.S., we are losing an average of one and a half-million acres of farmland yearly to roads.”
Frank opened the glove compartment. “The maps that come with the Reality are given to you courtesy of the AAAA Corporation.”
“You mean AAA.” I corrected him.
“No, AAAA.” he smiled. “It’s another group. Automobiles Are Attacking America.” He opened up one of the maps.”They’re double-sided. The front shows the road system that now exists. On the back,” he flipped the map over, “are maps of what the area looked like before roads were built there. Down here,” he pointed, “are the mini biographies of who or what lived here before their homes were paved over. Paving leads to decreased animal populations. Not only does it devastate their habitat, but roads sever animal migration routes and fragment forests and land. A lot of animals and plants have lost their homes and their lives to highways.”
“But, Frank, we need more roads. There’s so much traffic and there are huge unpaved sections of town.”
“They’re not so huge. Over sixty thousand square miles in the U.S. are paved over. That’s ten percent of all arable land. In most cities, close to half the urban space is devoted to roads, parking lots, and other car paraphernalia. In Los Angeles, 2/3 of the city space is taken up by the car and its infrastructure. More of our land is covered in pavement than in housing.”
“That’s why cities are so convenient.” I said.
“Maybe for you, a member of the car-driving crowd, but about 100 thousand U.S. citizens a year are uprooted from their homes to make room for more roads. Plus, a lot of people don’t own cars. Most of them don’t because they can’t afford to. If you’re an average car owner, your car and its needs take up about 18 percent of your budget. That’s more money than most people spend on food. Those who don’t own cars still bear the brunt of others’ auto mobility; noise and air pollution, an unsafe walking and bike-riding environment, higher accident risks, and a lack of open space.”
I stared at the dismal dials and decided to change the subject. “Frank, these gauges are informative, but, where’s the a.c.? Where’s the heat? Where ’s the stereo? Where’s the foam seat?”
“We have reasons those items are not included. We decided not to put air conditioners in because, as you will notice, the Reality doesn’t have any windows. We figured drivers should be forced to breathe in the air that they are helping to create. When people drive in a car and have the a.c. on and the windows rolled up, they are in a bubble, cool and supposedly safe from the fumes their engine is emitting. But, surprisingly, the levels of some toxins have been found to be up to ten times higher inside motor vehicles than in the outside ambient air. These chemicals include VOC’s, volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, toulene, formaldehyde, and methyl tertiary butyl ether, also known as MTBE, as well as carbon monoxide. Leaking car air conditioners used to be the number one cause of ozone depletion. The a.c. coolant used in cars made before 1993 was freon, a chemical that contained chloroflorocarbons which depleted the ozone layer. Most cars made after 1996 use a coolant which is less damaging to the ozone layer. The heater won’t be needed,” he paused and then gave a sarcastic laugh, “because due to increased world-wide carbon dioxide emissions, of which cars emit seventeen percent, temperatures are already heating up due to global warming.
We didn’t put in a stereo because when people drive, they turn them on and lose track of what it is they are actually doing. Think about it. When you get into a car and turn on music, it’s easy to sing along and enjoy the experience. When you get into a car and sit in silence, what happens?”
I tore my eyes away from the cat’s face that was staring at me on the animal-o-meter and glanced at Frank. “I have no idea. I’ve never driven in a car without playing the stereo.”
“Well,” Frank said, “you have to sit in a metal box, usually alone, hearing road and motor noises.”
“I’d rather hear Sheryl Crow.” I snapped. Frank was beginning to irritate me.
He continued. “The foam used in many seat covers contains chloroflorocarbons. Maybe that’s how Rush Limbaugh got confused. He heard that “seat foam” destroys ozone and thought he heard “sea foam.” Then he mistakenly insisted to millions of people that sea foam destroys the ozone layer.”
“I believed him.” I admitted.
Frank went on, “The Reality hasn’t been a top seller.”
I glanced at the dash and then tapped my fist on the seat. “Well, what did you expect, Frank? It’s no wonder. All these dials of guilt, and look at the seats! What are they made of? Granite?”
“Concrete,” Frank said. “They are designed to help a person stay alert and to be so uncomfortable that they will want to cut down on their driving time. Americans spend eight billion hours a year idling in traffic. If you commute two hours a day and live to age 70, you will have been in your car for almost three years of your life.” He patted the seat with his hand. “You can’t picture going on a pleasure drive sitting on one of these things now, can you?”
I stared at the car. “No, I can’t. But, if you want to sell cars, why did you have to make them so ugly?” I shook my head repeatedly as I stared at the hideous Reality.
“We want to remind people of what a car really is. It’s a tool for transportation. A piece of metal on wheels that enables you to move faster than you can go on your own. A tool, that unfortunately, has quite a few bad side effects.”
“Want to hop in and take a test drive?” he asked. “Take her out for a zoom on the freeway. You’ll get an idea of how she drives.” He seemed so excited, I decided to be polite and reluctantly got inside the car. I turned the key. The dials lit up. The face of the cat was glowing at me. I covered it with my thumb, but not before noting that this test model had already killed fifty-five moths, one skunk, and two fish.
Frank told me to take my time. “This vehicle, like most new cars, has a computer on board. This test model also has a special audio info-mercial for potential car buyers. As you’re driving, just sit back and listen to the car ’s message.” He slapped his hand down on the gray metal roof. “See you soon!”
I decided to head north on the 101 freeway and accelerated to merge onto the road. The car was barely picking up speed. I stared in disbelief at the speedometer. It only went up to 40 miles per hour. Above the number 40 I read “optimum speed for internal combustion engine mileage efficiency.”
“They’ve got to be kidding.” I thought. I read the rest of what was written around the speedometer. Below the number 35, it said “average current travel speed in Southern California.” The 11 had “projected L.A. freeway speed within next 20 years” written next to it.
I poked along in the slow lane feeling embarrassed and conspicuous. At least my rusted Pontiac went up to 60. Someone drove by me furiously honking and screamed, “Get off the road, you idiot!” After I had received the finger three times, I cursed Frank.
The animal-o-meter showed that I had already crunched two moths, and 55 insects. “I don’t know if I can take much more of this.” I sighed.
Just then the car’s computerized voice began to speak. “Welcome to the Reality. This car is spewing out a potpourri of pollutants as we roll along. One of the main ingredients of exhaust is carbon monoxide. In large amounts it can cause death. In outdoor exposure, it causes headaches, itching eyes, dizziness, drowsiness, impairs hand-eye coordination, slows reflexes and can cause fetal damage. Carbon monoxide also interferes with the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen, thus affecting perception and thinking.
About 65 percent of the world’s carbon monoxide is caused by motor vehicles. In urban areas, 80 percent of it comes from cars. In the U.S. 67 million tons of carbon monoxide are emitted into the atmosphere each year.
Another ingredient of pollutant potpourri is carbon dioxide, CO2. It is a major greenhouse gas. The greenhouse effect is a natural process that keeps the planet’s temperature warm. However, in our industrialized society, we have created more greenhouse gases than are needed for this process. This excess is causing the temperature of our planet to rise. When the Earth heats up even a few degrees, it has a severe effect. Motor vehicles contribute 20 percent of the total carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Cars and trucks are the largest source of human-made CO2. Every gallon of gas that we burn produces 19 pounds of CO2. In one year of driving, the average car releases between one to three tons of CO2 into the air.
Nitrogen oxides, also known as NOx, are heavy contributors to the brown haze of smog. Nitrogen oxides can cause respiratory infections and lung diseases and may also exacerbate the symptoms of bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema, and cancer. Combined with water, NOx forms nitric acid, a component of acid rain. Nitrogen oxides also react with hydrocarbons, heat, and sunlight to make ground-level ozone. Motor vehicles create about 43 percent of the nitrogen oxides in our air.
Hydrocarbons are another byproduct of automobiles. Most of the hydrocarbons in the air come from tail pipe emissions, Hydrocarbons are also released when gas evaporates during refueling and from gas leakage. Some hydrocarbons, like benzene, are known to cause cancer, leukemia, central nervous system problems, liver damage and blood and bone disorders. Motor vehicles emit 85 percent of the benzene in the air. Hydrocarbons also react with nitrogen oxide to form ozone.
Ozone is the main ingredient in smog. It is a harmful pollutant that is formed when exhaust emissions mix with each other and with other chemicals. It can cause severe respiratory problems, lung dysfunctions, coughing, chest pain, burning eyes, and sore throat and can increase peoples’ reactions to allergies. Long-term exposure to ground-level ozone causes permanent lung damage. Ozone is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect. In fact, automobiles in the U.S. are the single largest greenhouse gas source globally. Ozone also damages manufactured goods and natural building materials. It causes rubber to crack, dyes to fade, and paint to erode.
Air pollution causes as many as 120,000 premature deaths each year. 30,000 Americans die annually as a result of chronic low-level exposure to gas and diesel fumes. The additives in gasoline are nothing you would want to frost your cake with. These toxic substances include ethylene dichloride, ethylene dibromide, toulene, and xylene. All of these can cause skin and eye irritation, central nervous system problems, and liver and kidney damage.” The car’s voice paused. I imagined that I could feel my eyes itching, my throat becoming sore, my reflexes slowing…
“This is ridiculous.” I thought. “Cars can’t be that bad.”
The Reality’s automated voice interrupted my thought. “Keep in mind that if you are driving the sports utility model of the Reality, your vehicle is polluting 40 percent more than a smaller car.
Motor vehicles pollute in all phases of their lives. They poison as they are being built, while they are being used, and in their afterlife. Car manufacturing requires extracting huge quantities of non-renewable resources out of the Earth. Cars can be seen as temporary storage areas for our natural resources. These “storage areas” are designed to be replaced every 36 to 48 months. Car production uses nickel, zinc, steel, aluminum, copper, rubber, and lead. Increasingly, car bodies contain more plastic, itself a petroleum by-product, most of it non-recyclable. A typical domestic car may house 60 different types of plastic. Plastic has severe environmental consequences of its own. The manufacture of a new car emits four tons of carbon and nearly 700 pounds of pollutants into the atmosphere.
Each year in the U.S. automobile makers use 638 million pounds of petrochemical glues and adhesives. Almost 40,000 gallons of water are used to build one car. This water then becomes contaminated with toxic chemicals. But, of all the processes used to manufacture motor vehicles, painting them is the most polluting. The color coat used on cars releases the most air pollution.
After a car retires from the road, it continues its polluting legacy. In the U.S. between 1910 and 1984, almost seven million cars and trucks were dumped. Eleven million cars die each year in the U.S. Abandoned vehicles sit and slowly rust away, leaking toxic fluids, motor oil and battery acid which can then be washed into the oceans, lakes, or streams, or soaked into the soil, and eventually into the ground water. About 20 million dead batteries are thrown away each year. Each battery contains about 18 pounds of lead. 60 percent of the lead found in land fills and incinerators comes from car batteries.
Car tires pose another problem. Almost 250 million tires are junked each year in the U.S. There are about two to three billion old tires laying around our country. These tires pose fire and air pollution hazards and serve as breeding grounds for mosquitoes.”
The voice stopped.
The exhaust from the freeway was irritating me, so I tried to roll up the windows. I had forgotten that there weren’t any to roll up. I tried to hum some songs, but the roar and whoosh of the cars shimmering their way down the road was all I could hear. The slab seat was digging into my rear end. Drivers were madly passing me and yelling epithets. The Reality was going so slow, I felt like Barney Rubble from the Flintstones, peddling frantically, and stuck in some super-futuristic nightmare.
I decided to pull over to the side of the road, to stretch, and gain my bearings. I looked at the speedometer. I had driven six miles. The car’s voice came back on. “On this trip your car released five pounds of carbon dioxide, a quarter-pound of carbon monoxide, and a few grams each of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons.”
I got out of the car and eyed it. “I don’t like you.” I yelled. “I don’t want to know all of this!”
I took out a copy of the AAAA map. The road I was parked beside had once been a California live-oak grove. I glanced down and saw the faces of a grizzly bear, bob cat, and many other animals who were now nowhere to be seen. I looked around. Wait, there was one! It was lying on the road. I could see the flat outline of its squashed body on top of the white plastic dots that divided the lanes. I thought briefly of the animals that had once freely roamed this land before it became a freeway and I began to feel guilty. “But, that’s progress.” I rationalized to myself. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s nothing I can do about them now.” I surveyed my surroundings. The animals had been replaced by a metal menagerie of squealing, squeaking and screaming four-wheeled rubberized, plasticized, glass-eyed monsters who gobbled up gas and pooped out poison.
The oaks’ replacements didn’t play their parts very well. Neon colored call boxes stood alongside the road. Huge street lights were beginning to light up the pre-sunset ooze. “Too many nitrogen oxides in the air,” I muttered to myself. “Maybe all of our driving is having a bad effect on the environment. I suppose I could dust off my bike and start riding it.” I took in a deep breath of air. “No, it’s way too polluted in this town to ride a bike, and besides I might get hit by a car.”
I glared at the gray unpainted hulk of the Reality dully resting by the side of the road. As hundreds of shiny, beautiful cars sped by, it looked like an old tin cup conspicuously sitting in front of a set of new Revere cookware.
“I do feel bad about those animals.” I thought, but quickly came to my senses as a bright blue De-Forester and a red Metropolis drove by. The couple in the front seat of the Metropolis were both talking on their cell phones. The children in the back were watching a video and eating take-out food in styrofoam containers. They were all having fun. They didn’t seem worried about what their SUV’s were doing to the environment. “I deserve to have fun too,” I proclaimed. “I’m an American! Why should I be deprived?” I glanced at the Reality. “I refuse to drive that thing anymore.” I stomped away from the car to a conveniently placed call box and called a cab. “An oak tree couldn’t do this,” I smugly thought as I hung up the phone.
I sat down on the gravel by the side of the road to wait for the cab and began to daydream about my new car. “I need to buy one of those nice comfortable mini vans or maybe an S.U.V. The kind named after Native American Indian tribes or wild animals.” I liked the idea. I tried to imagine why I would actually need one of those huge cars in the city, but, I guess it didn’t really matter. Everyone else had one. “Besides, I may go camping someday.” I tried to recall if there were any campgrounds nearby. “Not a one. But, I bet that guy in the Deforester never goes out in the woods.” I imagined the comfort of the foam seats, the stereo playing Norah Jones, the air conditioner cranked up to its full potential … and me sitting there feeling proud, breathing in that new car smell, which is sort of a mix between Saran wrap, PVC pipes, chlorine bleach, and nail polish remover.
The squealing of brakes pulled me out of my reverie. The taxi cab rolled to a stop beside me and narrowly missed hitting the county road crew who were busily spraying Round Up on four weeds who were menacing the freeway. I gracefully hopped over the stream of spray and into the cab.
“Where to, ma’am?”
I took one last look at the car that I never wanted to see again. The road crew had surrounded it and were dousing it in a fountain of Round Up.
“Driver,” I pleaded, “take me anywhere… away from that Reality.” He stepped on the gas.
Jill Cloutier is a freelance writer who lives in Santa Barbara.
She can be reached at [email protected].