Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez

Car crash: The death of the American auto

By Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez
May 6, 2009
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IN THE DESERT outside Las Vegas, a blaze of orange flames heats the Nevada night, lighting the way for police and firefighters. These first responders are not surprised by what they find -another SUV being consumed in a ball of arson fire. In recent weeks, such images have made the news, with CBS asking: Why are people across the country destroying such beloved and essential objects?

In America, we rarely catch a glimpse of the end of a car's life. The efficiency of highway response provides only rare chances to rubberneck at a disturbing tableau of mangled steel; parts rust in remote junkyards; and the news seldom covers crashes unless they are spectacular, like a 30-car pileup.

The majority of automotive images we take in have the sweeping grandeur of the car commercial, the sexy adrenaline-charge of the Hollywood chase, or the gleaming novelty of the auto show. On the road, too, many vehicles are freshly minted: Americans have bought 80 million new ones since 2004. A shimmering car emerging from one of the nation's more than 90,000 car washes is a far more frequent sight than that of a junker disappearing into a crusher. Our ideas about the automobile are consequently wrapped up in notions of newness, progress, and national and personal economic success.

It is a century in the making, this mythology of the American car. In that time, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was lifted from the Declaration of Independence and remade as a tagline for Cadillac.

It took the extremity of the economic crisis for consumers to begin to deconstruct the myths and reclaim our independence. Americans are now seeing their cars not as the emblem of their socio-economic rise but an unsustainable encumbrance. Unable to pay for repairs or deductibles, they are abandoning broken cars in their driveways and hopping on bikes or mass transit. Facing unaffordable payments, some are resorting to fraud. Insurance scams are exploding across the country as people recognize that their vehicles are worth more dead than alive.

During the bubble, many of us traded in our cars every few years simply because we grew tired of them or a new model beckoned. But now, at all income levels, we are recognizing our automotive overspending and overdependence. The loss of a long-held job lays bare previously overlooked costs of ownership. Our obsession with gas prices is put into perspective as we finally examine the full burden of depreciation, financing, insurance, maintenance, repairs, parking, fees, tolls, taxes, and multi-car garage mortgages. The average family is shocked to discover that, payments hidden in various tax bills aside, it spews $14,000 annually out the tailpipe. This recession-forced budget exercise makes carpooling seem more brilliant than inconvenient and public transportation suddenly attractive.

We are starting to notice that when we shop less, we drive less; and when we drive less, we shop less. Nationally, peak traffic had shifted from weekday commuting times to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, reflecting how many of our trips were not to work to earn income but to Wal-Mart and Home Depot to spend it. En route, radio and billboard ads drew us into more stores for impulse buys. More conscious of the true costs of driving, we are rethinking not just these discretionary trips but the very structure of our lives. Because we could afford to drive there, we bought larger houses in far-flung exurbs; we now revisit the appeal of in-town living and walkable neighborhoods. The "need" for three cars and the reasonableness of driving 15,000 miles a year are being challenged.

So with the economic crash has come a visible crash of the car industry. Auto sales in March were down more than a third from a year ago, the 15th month in a row of declines. Six million fewer cars are likely to be sold in 2009 compared with two years earlier, despite lower gas prices. Obviously, most of these foregone purchases were optional.

Televised scenes of smoldering auto carcasses in the desert reveal only the smoke: the fire is the unsustainable car system combusting. As an object of reverence and desire, the meteor of excess, the American auto has come down to earth.

Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown University, and Anne Lutz Fernandez are authors of the forthcoming "Carjacked."

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