Car Brain: How Entering a Car Can Rewire Your Brain

What’s car brain?

Car brain, also known as motonormativity, describes a phenomena stemming from a car-centric society that affects us on both individual and societal levels. An individual experiences car brain when they fail to apply the same logic and values they normally would outside of a car upon entering one. Society, on the other hand, is affected by motornormativity in a way that it is systematically built to accept and overlook the risks and disadvantages presented by car-centrism that it would otherwise not tolerate in other aspects in life.

Traffic congestion on Malaysian roads

Examples of car brain

Individuals with car brain tend to make exceptions, also referred to as “blindspots”, for car and driving related situations that they would not normally let slide in any other situation. For example, while queuing at the grocery store, it is highly unlikely people would cut in front of others in line simply because they felt as though they were more important. And yet, place these same people into cars on a road, and line cutting is more than likely to happen; even though both these scenarios are essentially the same with the only difference being the addition of cars. 

Ian Walker, an environmental psychologist, has conducted research to further study this phenomenon. Walker created two sets of surveys with statements that participants could agree or disagree with; one consisting of general statements, and the other made of similar statements with certain keywords tweaked to be related to driving or cars. These two sets were then equally distributed to participants so that half of them would get the first set, and the other half would get the second.

One of the statements was “people shouldn’t smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the cigarette fumes”; its car-related counterpart was “people shouldn’t drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the car fumes.” Reading these two statements, do you find yourself more willing to excuse the behaviour exhibited in the latter? Unsurprisingly, more people agreed with the smoking statement. In fact, there was a 58% difference in agreement rates between the two statements. This further demonstrates the blindspot we have when it comes to driving related behaviour, which can extend far beyond just health endangerment and carbon emissions.

On a separate account, Alan Tapp who worked on the same study with Walker, suggests that if one were to propose building a hospital in an area that makes it inaccessible to 20% of the population to a policy maker, it is likely that they would oppose the idea. However, if the proposal was reframed as building a hospital at the edge of town, it is less likely that policy makers will see any issue with this; although both proposals have the same implications. Another comparison given was that while someone smoking within a school’s vicinity would be frowned upon by parents who worry about their childrens’ health, a car idling outside a school zone be it to relax in the air conditioning or to finish listening to a song is less likely to get the same ill response.

Switching from a car to no-car context drastically shifted responses

Surprisingly, results from Dr. Walker’s survey showed that there was no significant difference between the answers of drivers and non-drivers. This goes to show that motonormative thinking affects all those involved within its society and not just vehicle owners.

What fuels car brain?

Surely the switch from agreement to disagreement simply based on whether driving is involved or not is baffling. This is largely attributed to the deeply embedded car culture within our society, which can cause the inability to think objectively about the relationship we have with cars. A cognitive bias known as the self-perception trap – where external feedback reinforces one’s beliefs about themselves, even if it is limiting or inaccurate – can also fuel car-brained behaviour. A BBC article on motonormativity summarises that people perceive themselves as better drivers than they actually are, as they get no direct negative feedback from breaking traffic laws. Those who speed or drunk-drive are likely to get away with it a couple times, causing them to believe that they are good enough drivers to never get into any accidents.

Effects of car brain and car centrism

We’ve gone through how car brain affects the thought process of individuals, but how does it affect those in its surroundings? 

Unfortunately, it is in those moments where drivers feel as though they are invincible that they are most dangerous. According to the World Health Organisation, every 1% increase in mean speed increases fatal crash risks by 4%. In fact, road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for those ages 5 to 29, and around 1.19 million people die from road traffic crashes yearly. 

Aside from road injuries, there are many other health hazards that come with car-centrism. This includes air pollution, which causes respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis and cancer. Noise pollution from traffic also contributes to factors like stress and sleep disturbances or depravity. There are also indirect health hazards that are caused by car-centrism, such as obesity or diabetes stemming from the discouragement of physical activity, mental health issues caused by reduced social interaction, or even the lack of accessibility to hospitals and healthcare services to those who do not own cars.

Society also demonstrates a victim blaming mentality when it comes to driving. There are safety campaigns that encourage children to wear bright clothing or safety vests so that they’re more visible on the roads and less likely to get hit by motor vehicles. It is easier to question the apparel of the victim rather than why people are expected to mix with vehicles hundreds of times heavier and faster than them in the first place. In any other situation (sexual harassment for example), it would be much easier to recognise victim blaming, so why do we turn a blind eye when cars are involved?

Cycling lanes are dangerously close to car lanes

As if all that wasn’t enough, car-centrism affects the environment as well. It’s no news that motor vehicles are one of the major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, which adds to climate change. It also hurts wildlife as forests are paved away to make way for highways and cities.

What caused car-centrism?

In the 1980’s, Malaysia found itself grasping for progress, alongside almost every other country in Southeast Asia. Development became king, which led to the rise of bigger cities and the establishment of companies like Proton and Perodua in the 1980’s and 1990’s respectively. The Malaysian Economic Report records that Malaysia had been experiencing strong growth at the time, but looking past the numbers, one thing was certain: with the way things were changing, people were going to need a car if they wanted to drive down the road of progress. Owning a car meant you were self sufficient, able to travel between city and village independently, and justified buying a house in the quiet, crime and pollution free suburbs; which in turn fueled urban spread and the development of city design that favoured private car ownership.

Since then, when motor vehicles present an issue, it is typically responded with specialised, car-inclusive solutions. An example of this could be when a lack of parking space is solved via bigger parking lots, or when traffic congestion is met with addition of lanes, even though it’s been proved that adding lanes actually creates more traffic. This cycle is known as the “positive feedback loop”, and has been the leading reason as to why car-centrism is so difficult to escape. By the time our roads became too crowded, pollutants from car exhaust pipes too prevalent, parking spots so scarce, and cities a nuisance to walk in, Malaysians and many of the other countries had already buried themselves under unsustainable solutions piled on other unsustainable solutions.

Breaking free from motonormativity

Knowing all this, it’s safe to say that car-centrism is contributing to a series of serious public health hazards, and motonormative thinking is preventing us from properly acknowledging its severity. Some may argue that placing restrictions on driving limits freedom of mobility. Arguably, being forced to spend thousands of ringgit purchasing a car, thousands more paying for gas, then even more on road tax and insurance, just to spend hours stuck in traffic daily does not exactly scream freedom. Freedom should also not be limited to those who are privileged enough to own and drive a car.

Luckily, there are many alternatives to getting around, such as public transport for long distances, and walking or cycling for shorter ones. If travelling by car is still your preferred method of transport, some more eco-friendly alternatives could be carpooling or taxi hailing. Any worries about decentralising cars as a main mode of transport can easily be solved in the long run, as long as people support this change and are willing to utilise alternative travel modes. For example, with less cars on roads, public transport like buses and taxis will be able to reach destinations quicker as there would be less traffic. Increased participation in public transport would also likely lead to an increase in the number of routes, stops, and the frequency of bus and train arrivals, as demand is what fuels supply. City planning would also be more people-centred, which means more compact city layouts, allowing for easier access to everything. Excess land previously reserved for cars could also be converted into communal centres and social hubs instead, boosting social relations and fostering healthy communities (as shown in the images below).

Jubilee Garden in London in the 1960s (top) and the present after moving away from car-centric city design

Rather than waiting for an accident to occur to warrant a change in behaviour, it would be much more productive if people listened to advice from experts who look into this issue at a societal level and behave accordingly. If you need more motivation to minimise your car dependency, now is a good time to remind you of the recent cuts in fuel subsidies by our government. There is no better time to explore the wonderful world of public transportation than now! So, the next time your destination is easily accessible via public transport, or if it’s within walking distance, consider ditching your car and trying an alternative form of travelling instead! Let’s combat motonormative thinking together for a safer, greener, and community-centred future.

Written by: Sarah Tan

Edited by: Ashley Anne Danker

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