When your car causes you to sin: Driving does not encourage us to be our best selves
On Easter Sunday, I woke up earlier than usual and walked to Mass. My parish is very close, but it is on the far side of a major thoroughfare, and I had never walked there before. The weather was pleasant, the traffic was sparse, and I thought it might be nice to avoid jostling for a parking spot or leaving right after Communion to avoid a traffic jam on the way out. I stayed for the final blessing, shook the priest’s hand and strolled home—without any nagging annoyance or feeling of misanthropy.
The experience made me think about how the car—and particularly, reliance on the car for almost every daily task—influences our minds and moods. There is my own impulse to exit the church quickly to beat the crowd, for example. The almost unbearable frustration of being stuck in traffic. The anger we feel (and sometimes inspire) in tricky or dangerous situations on the road. It is obvious that driving does not encourage us to be our best selves.
When we reflexively associate temptation with sex, we can forget the ways in which the temptation to behave badly can come up in more mundane situations. Like driving.
What does this have to do with Catholicism? It makes me think of the “near occasion of sin”: the Catholic idea that we should not put ourselves in situations that we know will tempt us to behave badly. Our faith demands willpower and rejection of temptation, of course, but it also understands that in our fallen nature, we are weak. The church asks us to be strong but also self-aware. Sometimes the best way to win is not to play.
The near occasion of sin, and the idea of temptation, generally comes up when we talk about vices: drinking, gambling and, of course, sex. The classic (and now, sadly, almost innocent) example of avoiding the near occasion of sin is to not enter the section of a store where they sell the “girlie mags.” “I’ll just browse the other magazines,” our archetypical sinner might say, knowing full well he won’t.
It is good to take the siren song of these vices seriously (without falling into the habit of scrupulosity). But when we reflexively associate temptation with sex, we can forget the ways in which the temptation to behave badly can come up in more mundane situations. Like driving.
Most Catholics would agree that a consideration of the common good applies to, say, following health protocols in the low point of a pandemic, or being a “conscious consumer,” or investing in companies whose values are not hostile to the church. But even socially aware Catholics can fail to apply such moral caution to cars and driving, or fail to consider that such caution might be applicable. This is a serious blind spot.
Even socially aware Catholics can fail to apply moral caution to cars and driving, or fail to consider that such caution might be applicable. This is a serious blind spot.
Cars—which is to say often-careless motorists—kill roughly 40,000 Americans every year. For years, car crashes were the leading cause of death for children, before guns overtook them. Lower-income people, including many immigrants, are particularly vulnerable because they are often forced to cross busy highways on foot in neighborhoods without sidewalks or traffic lights. But almost anybody outside of a car can be in danger. (In 2021, police in Montgomery County, Md., reported that an elderly couple had been killed crossing the street—not together, but five years and a few blocks apart.)
The biggest problem is that the car encourages a feeling of physical and moral insulation. Somebody crossing the street really does seem to appear “out of nowhere” when they have been concealed behind the hood of a hulking S.U.V., and a person crossing at a normal strolling speed really does seem to be getting in your way on purpose. American roads are wide and have gotten wider (a little measuring on Google Maps will reveal that many modern residential streets are wider than old U.S. highways); combined with straight stretches and visual monotony, this makes safe driving speeds feel intolerably slow.
Sitting behind the wheel in most of the United States produces a constant, gnawing frustration due to the car’s capacity—speed—being limited by the reality of driving surrounded by so many fellow human beings. We have all seen, and perhaps felt, road rage. I shared one example of this in my Substack newsletter:
A motorist in front of me rolled through a stop sign (I think) and in any case failed to see a woman crossing. He braked, she yelled at him, he rolled down his window and yelled back, and then when he slowly drove away, she gave his trunk a whack with her palm.
Then, losing her balance, she fell on the ground and apparently injured her knee.
The motorist got out of the car, obviously making sure she hadn’t been badly hurt, but also angry that she’d hit his car. “You blew through that stop sign,” she said, shaken and quietly angry. “No I didn’t. And you don’t hit someone’s car,” he snapped back. “Live whatever life you want to live,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t know what your problem is,” he said, exasperated and seemingly baffled.
In what other setting would we be angry at a person we almost just killed? In what other setting would we find that sentiment entirely rational and appropriate?
The car itself—or at least the experience of driving, or the design of our roads—produces these sinful feelings. That might ultimately be changeable, but it is not changeable right now by an individual motorist. The point is not that motorists are bad people; rather, it is that something about driving can distort the moral sense of good people. It can do that to you and me. And as a Catholic, I am wary of putting myself in a situation in which I know I will be tempted to do wrong or dangerous things and then breezily excuse myself.
As a Catholic, I am wary of putting myself in a situation in which I know I will be tempted to do wrong or dangerous things and then breezily excuse myself.
This potential for moral deformity demands something from us. The occasions for it may be constants, or “structural factors,” but that is reason to avoid them or seek to change them, not to passively accept them. Having begun to keenly recognize all of this, I find it impossible to view driving as outside the sphere of morality or virtue. Or exempt from the advice to avoid a near occasion of sin.
How can you reduce these near occasions of sin? Try walking more often to your nearest supermarket (if it is at all possible), and minimize the number of trips behind the wheel. When you do drive, turn a long traffic light into a challenge: “How many Hail Marys can I pray?” Acknowledge your weakness before you encounter the temptation to speed dangerously, and attempt to drive with deliberation. Above all, see the other people around you as people.
That is the most we can do in the immediate moment, though we can and should revisit the land use and transportation assumptions of the 20th century. The grave responsibility of getting behind the wheel can be done with patience, attention and virtue. But we should keep in mind that if anything should cause us to sin, Jesus told us what to do with it.