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Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives

Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives

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Carjacked is an in-depth look at our obsession with cars. While the automobile's contribution to global warming and the effects of volatile gas prices is widely known, the problems we face every day because of our cars are much more widespread and yet much less known — from the surprising $14,000 that the average family pays each year for the vehicles it owns, to the increase in rates of obesity and asthma to which cars contribute, to the 40,000 deaths and 2.5 million crash injuries each and every year.

Carjacked details the complex impact of the automobile on modern society and shows us how to develop a healthier, cheaper, and greener relationship with cars.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230618138
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/05/2010
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 885,034
Product dimensions: 6.44(w) x 9.64(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

Catherine Lutz is the Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Family Professor of Anthropology and International Studiesat Brown University where she holds a joint appointment with the Department of Anthropology. As an author and editor, Professor Lutz has published nine books. Anne Lutz Fernandez is a former marketer and investment banker with fifteen years of corporate experience. She is an English teacher in Westport, Connecticut.

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The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives

By Catherine Lutz, Anne Lutz Fernandez

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2010 Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61813-8



Hundreds of halogen lights on the vaulted ceiling of the convention center beam down on the New York International Auto Show, making everything look good—the rich, pearlescent surfaces of the Ford Explorer and the quirky compactness of the Mini Cooper, the attractive young product specialists for Mercedes and Chrysler, the couples and teenage boys strolling among the cars. The whole place sparkles. Like Times Square moved indoors, the show blazes with giant television screens and brilliantly colored and dramatically lit backdrops for each company's display. Some cars rotate out of reach on giant turntables, others pose majestically on risers, but most are open to sit in and touch. Squadrons of buffers and polishers fly through, quickly erasing each new handprint and smudge. Brilliant chrome engines sit on pedestals, the convoluted guts of the vehicles presented with as much reverence as their sleek exteriors.

Visitors swarm around the cars, admiring the baroque intricacies of the tire rims, the lush interior surfaces and high-tech gadgets, and the sweeping, powerful lines of one car after another. They are imagining themselves as drivers. As one young man said to us, "What do I like about this car?! I like the way I look in it!"

This is not just a convention of gearheads, but a wide-ranging sample of America's two hundred million drivers: a pregnant woman and her husband shopping to replace their two-door coupe with a vehicle that will more easily accommodate an infant seat; a band of retired buddies who note they share a pragmatic approach to cars, replacing them only after "driving them into the ground"; and couples just browsing for their next car, although this is still some years off. The gearheads are not of a single type, either: one fifty-year-old has come, he says, to appreciate the new cars with the reverence for industrial design that his mechanic father passed down to him. Another man proudly announces that he owns five cars and drives 60,000 miles a year. And a woman wanders through with her twenty-something boyfriend, offering with a bit of admiration that he subscribes to three different car magazines.

And then there are the people walking through the auto show who don't own a car and can't afford one. Many of the slim-walleted teenage boys swarming around the cars fantasize a future in which they occupy the driver's seat. The Mercedes-Benz product specialist doesn't mind these young adult nonbuyers at all: "Though they might not even have drivers' licenses yet, it's the car that they have a poster of over their desk when they're doing their homework, and hopefully ten or fifteen years from now when they have a good job and they're ready to go out and buy a car, they'll buy a Mercedes ... and they might not start out with that extreme, beautiful convertible, but we have entry-level. You can get a C-class sedan for twenty-nine-nine, or they can buy a certified pre-owned for a lower price ... but it gets them into the brand, and they get started on it, and that's it. They can't go back to driving a lesser car."

One African American man came from the Bronx by subway, bringing his two young boys on a sort of motivational tour. He did this, he said, joking paternally, "So when they become some kind of superstar, they know what kind of car they are going to buy me!" For this man and many others, the cars on display are the big carrots available to those who work hard or win the lottery, and each, from the lowly Kia Rio to the regal BMW M-class, represents a rung on the ladder of success.

In our affair with the car, the auto show is just one afternoon of romance. As a result of the whole, long love story, and the corporate and government planners who helped write it, we have become a nation whose transportation and residential system is fundamentally based on the private car, not on public transit.


In 2003, the number of vehicles in the national fleet surpassed the number of Americans with a driver's license for the first time. Today, a total of 244 million cars, trucks, SUVs, and motorcycles ply the roads. Nine out of ten U.S. households own a car, and most now own more than one. This statistic may not surprise, since so many of the families we know own more than one car, yet the multivehicle household is a relatively new phenomenon. Over the last several decades, middle-class Americans have come to call it a necessity for each driver in the family to have his or her own car. Teens now often get one soon after their first license, though the steepest growth in the number of cars per family came as women began entering the paid workforce in larger numbers back in the 1960s. At the beginning of that decade, just 20 percent of households owned a second car; now over 65 percent do. More and more families also happily buy a third or even fourth vehicle as a recreational or weekend car or as a collectible.

We don't just have more cars, of course, but more car. Our vehicles are much bigger and more powerful than ever before. American manufacturers have put their vehicles on a course of steroids over the last decade or two, almost doubling their fleets' horsepower. Sales of the largest pickup trucks were two and a half times higher in 2006 than they were in 1992, and while such sales declined with the recession, the outsize Ford F–150 remained the fastest-selling vehicle into 2008. And the giant SUVs sold 25 times more vehicles in the first decade of the 00s than they did in the 1980s, with the aid of what has been called the "Hummer tax deduction," which allowed business owners to write off up to $100,000 of their SUV costs. Advances in fuel efficiency technologies have been offset by increases in horsepower, with the result that average gas mileage has remained basically flat: the Model T got an astounding 28.5 miles per gallon, and in 2004, the national average was down to 24.7 mpg.

At the same time that cars have gotten larger, oddly, it would seem, the number of people in them has declined. Solitude is the default condition for drivers, with the average occupancy rate per car in 2006 at 1.6 people.

When people are asked why they like their cars, their first answer tends to be the convenience they provide. However, most Americans see the car as much more than their most important tool for getting around. In a 1975 survey, 71 percent said that a car was essential for them to live "the good life," a higher percentage than any element of American life other than home ownership, a happy marriage, and having children. But by 1991, the figure had risen to 75 percent, making cars more important to us than children, who were bumped to a sad fourth place. While some argue that this simply reflects an ever-rising consumer ethos, it also shows that the car is the king of all commodities we desire. The car has parked itself at the very heart of our notions of happiness.

While some take a simply pragmatic approach to the auto, others buy and maintain cars that they may not need or may not be able to afford, such as the man we spoke with who was trying to hold onto his $40,000 truck despite being underemployed and behind on his child support payments. And people sometimes keep a car even if it causes great daily exertion. For example, one New York City resident described growing up in Brooklyn with a rarely used minivan. There, street parking is tight and parking regulations require a continuous effort to park and repark the car: "You have to move the car constantly to keep up with the alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules. And so my mom would just be circling around all of the blocks near our house trying to find a spot. And she and my dad always had to make a really concerted effort to tell each other where the car was, because it wasn't always in the same place. And there were a couple of times where they forgot to tell each other and they would be walking around the blocks by our house with the car alarm button."

Across the country, there is evidence that convenience is not necessarily at the root of our love of the automobile. Many people drive to work even when public transportation or carpooling is less of a hassle and cheaper. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, thousands of office workers drive downtown every day even though they pay four times more to park in a garage than they would spend to take a city bus that would drop them off at the same corner. In one office building in Providence, Rhode Island, many employees drive to work rather than carpool or walk, even though the available parking comes with a two-hour limit, requiring them to leave the building two or three times a day, sometimes slogging through rain, sleet, or snow, to circle the area looking for another spot. The car's handiness can be more perception than truth.

Our potent desire to drive and the government policy preference for cars over other modes of transportation are reflected in the relative size of the U.S. mass transit fleet, which comprises just 129,000 vehicles nationwide. For every eight public dollars spent on transportation, only one goes to public transit; the other seven dollars go to car-related needs. And on any given day, recessions aside, an average of 150,000 Americans pour in to new and used car dealerships to buy a vehicle. As a result of the improvements in car quality and the rising cost of new cars, Americans drive their cars longer and are more and more likely to buy them used, but they keep on buying them. Though it may slow the purchase rate, even a slumping economy doesn't stop the buying frenzy: when the recession began, in 2007, Americans simply stopped buying SUVs with such fervor and started buying more used cars.

Once they've bought those cars, people take for granted that they rarely find themselves more than a mile from a gas station—or two or three for that matter—as 120,000 stations dot the land. Once centered on car repairs and gas sales, these stations are now usually mini-marts, selling food and lottery tickets along with windshield washer fluid, and reflecting the centrality of the car to shopping and the time crunch American families find themselves in. With remarkable near invisibility, the gas arrives at those stations via hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline, and a vast fleet of tanker trucks ply the roads daily to make delivery.

And drivers get to those gas stations by using the construction project of the twentieth century: the massive pouring of concrete and erection of steel that became our four million miles of roads and streets and 600,000 bridges (compared to just 200,000 miles of major railroads). Drivers can belly up to their destinations in one of 105 million parking spaces in the United States. Together, these paved surfaces match the square mileage of the state of Georgia. While people imagine that road system thick in some places and thin in others, our beloved automobile has demanded access virtually everywhere, including the diminishing wilderness areas of the West. There is no spot in the lower 48 of the United States more than 22 miles from the nearest road, outside of some unbuildable swampland in southern Louisiana. While the most road-remote location is in the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park, even such national parks and national forests are crisscrossed with miles and miles of roads and play host to traffic jams in the summer.

We traverse our dense spiderweb of roads to a startling degree, with the amount of driving we do having skyrocketed over the past quarter century. Even with the decline in driving prompted by the gas price spike of 2007 and 2008, the Department of Transportation estimate of the number of vehicle miles traveled in 2008 is 2.98 trillion—almost double the number of miles driven in 1983. And this is not just more cars and people on the road: from 1990 until 2007, the total number of miles driven in the United States grew at twice the rate of population growth. The combination of increased mileage and worsening traffic congestion has each of us on the road for an ever greater portion of our waking hours—on average, we spend 181/2 hours per week in our cars. Much of this travel is discretionary, as we will see later.

We don't just enjoy cars by buying and driving them. We also enjoy them when we go to the movies or stay parked in front of our television sets. Putting the pedal to the metal has joined football, baseball, swimming, and skating as a revered spectator sport. NASCAR racing has become the second most popular sport in the United States (after the National Football League) as measured by TV ratings. It now claims 75 million fans, its auto races accounting for 17 of the 20 largest attendance sports events in 2002. Revenue flows in accordingly, with $3 billion in NASCAR-licensed goods sold yearly and with Fortune 500 companies sponsoring racing more than any other sport. Car fun transcends the track: a plethora of car clubs, car shows, auto museums, Internet car forums, car magazines, and a cable TV channel called Speed, which is devoted exclusively to cars, all reinforce our idea of the car as big entertainment.

Then there are the Hollywood movies that provide the important stories we tell ourselves about who we are as a society and what is important to us. While computers might play an important supporting role as the miraculous tools of spies (Mission: Impossible), heroes (Bourne Identity), and ne'er-do-wells (Live Free or Die Hard), there is no artifact more central to more American movies than the automobile. Unlike other tools of modern daily living such as the microwave or cell phone, the car is not just a prop, but is often the central element for character development and dramatic intrigue, and remains central to Hollywood's archetypal plots. Few movies set in contemporary America made in the past few decades are without a car chase or car crash, a car interior rocking with teen high jinks or family conflict, or characters who find themselves physically lost or spiritually found on road trips. Such movies are sold not only as tales for boys and men; cars are the settings, plots, and even characters in chick flicks and kids' films as well.

Some movies draw in audiences by being virtually one long car stunt, crash, or race scene (The French Connection, The Blues Brothers, The Fast and the Furious). Others anthropomorphize or flat out celebrate the car (Transformers, Cars, Herbie: Fully Loaded, Christine): when American Graffiti's high school buddies get together for a last night before heading off to college, they cruise the neighborhood, hit the drive-ins, and drag-race, with one character proposing to his wheels, "I'll love and protect this car until death do us part." Few dare to run against the grain of car celebration and consumption. In Reality Bites, Winona Ryder's philosophical teenage character, Lelaina, rejects her parents' materialist lifestyle, putting cars at the top of the list in her graduation speech: "And they wonder why those of us in our twenties refuse to work an 80-hour week. Just so we can afford to buy their BMWs?" In short order, though, Lelaina's parents gift her with a BMW, and she finances her post-graduation malaise with "daddy's little gas card."

Whether we are driving them or watching them, the number of hours we spend immersed in car culture means that cars are everywhere—not just on the road—and we seem to welcome their pervasiveness. Yet, paradoxically, this close embrace has hidden many of the car's more harmful effects.


After the car's invention at the turn of the last century, the industries that emerged to provide automobility to the public became the most important sector of the U.S. economy. This became painfully obvious in late 2008 when several car companies were threatened with bankruptcy. The industry includes not only auto manufacturing but also the auto parts, gas, oil, tire, and road-building industries, repair shops, insurance companies, and the large segment of the advertising industry and media centered on selling cars. Although Wal-Mart ranked #1 in the 2007 Fortune 500, the next six largest corporations in the United States were all automobile and oil companies. Auto manufacturing represents 4 percent of the GDP, and a much larger proportion of the nation's productive output when all car-related industries are included.

By one auto industry research organization's estimate, one in ten working people have livelihoods related to the car. In 2004, that included a total of 1.3 million people directly paid by the auto manufacturers. Layoffs have shrunk the number of employees at Detroit's Big Three in recent years as those firms have stumbled, but foreign automakers have picked up some of the slack, and there are still millions of employees in the auto supply and other industry-related companies and in the used car industry. According to the monthly industry journal Parking Professionals, more than one million Americans are employed directly in some aspect of the "parking profession," administering access and fines, handing out tickets, moving cars and taking payment in garages, and manufacturing parking meters, building garages, and paving lots.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, and several decades into the Information Age, the computer has not replaced the automobile as the centerpiece and engine of the U.S. economy. As recently as 2002, sales of General Motors vehicles were seven times the dollar value of sales of Microsoft products. Even with the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, the United States and the world continued to buy cars by the millions, as well as the various ancillary services and parts that go with them.


Excerpted from Carjacked by Catherine Lutz, Anne Lutz Fernandez. Copyright © 2010 Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Dream Car: Myth-making, Western Values, and the Automobile 23

The Pitch: How They Sell

The Pitch: How We Buy

The Catch: What We Really Pay Chapter 6. The Catch: The Rich Get Richer

Why We Drive

Drive Time Remakes Us

Getting Carsick

Full Metal Jacket: The Body Count

Conclusion: A Call to Action

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