The Family Car as Modern-day Mobile Home

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Summer. The ideal time for a road trip. Not that Americans need an excuse to spend copious hours of time in their motor vehicles. Those of us between the ages of 35 and 54 spend an average of 15,291 miles a year driving our cars, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That’s a lot of miles. And yet, there’s been a lot of chatter recently about Americans’ dwindling love affair with the automobile.

That may be true of certain demographics. The percentage of 19-year-olds with driver’s licenses is the lowest it’s been in two decades. Car-sharing rentals have reached an all-time high of 1 million (think the urban hipster set). But a large segment of the population remains more attached than ever to its cars.

Consider the typical suburban family. To many, their car is not just a place to get from A to B. It’s a mobile dining cart. A place for parents and kids to connect. Frequently, the family car even serves as a surface to showcase the very identity of its occupants.

Car as moving expression of occupants’ personal identity
Think about all the things you can learn about a car’s occupants by just a quick scan of the vehicle. You don’t even have to peer inside. With all the bumper stickers that so many car owners plaster to the backs of their cars, you usually can create a fairly substantial profile just by sitting behind a car at a traffic light.

You can figure out superfluous things, like how fit the primary driver is, even when the only body part you see behind the wheel is a head and an arm. This, thanks to the 26.2, 70.0, and other stickers that correlate to distances run, swam, or otherwise moved by the driver. My personal favorite is the 0.0 sticker. If you look closer, you see these letters: LOMA. Get right up on the bumper and, in super-small letters on the bottom of the sticker, you can read what the acronym stands for: life on my ass.

Along with the superficial, bumper stickers reveal serious things about the occupants of a car. You can tell drivers’ political affiliation by the candidates they endorse, courtesy of bumper stickers. Jesus and other related stickers reveal religious preferences. Some stickers even shout out occupants’ personal philosophies: Life’s a beach, Co-exist, to name a few. Oftentimes, you can readily tell where drivers’ kids go to school and, on occasion, you even can figure out how well they do in school (thanks to those “My child is an honors student”stickers…).

It’s sort of ironic to think that, despite strong opposition to government, businesses, and other entities collecting our personal information, many of us are quick to slap stickers on our cars that tell any passerby about some pretty personal information.

Car talk
Speaking of personal information, many parents find the moving automobile the perfect venue for discussing topics of a sensitive nature with their children. A friend of mine insists she gave every sex lecture she could muster to her adolescent children while in the car. Date rape, masturbation, mutual respect and pleasure—nothing was off limits. With the kids strapped in their seats and the car cruising down the highway, there was little chance of them escaping, as is often the case with adolescents as soon as parents bring up anything having to do with sex.

I admit to using this tactic with my own adolescent daughter. Because she is not one to share freely any information with me about her friends (or enemies or neutral parties, for that matter), on our drives to and from school and extra-curricular activities I sometimes use what I consider “gently probing” techniques to at least attempt to find out what’s happening, or not, in her social strata.

Even though she contributes very little to my efforts at sometimes awkward two-way conversations, it usually works better than at home, where she can easily flounce off to her room at the slightest sign of pending confrontation.

Car as mobile dining cart
Sharing intimate conversations among family members while driving might not be for everyone, but sharing meals in the car is an easier sell—at least among my family members.

After at least one meal a day, I find myself clearing out the car, as opposed to the dinner table, from the remains. You name it: Coffee cups, water bottles, yogurt cups, banana peels, granola bar wrappers, pizza boxes—they all grace my car on a regular basis. It’s when the dining debris gets shoved under the seats and forgotten that problems arise. But it’s just a matter of housekeeping; or, rather, car cleaning.

It’s easy to confuse the two. After all, the family car represents to many Americans what only the home front once did: A place for family conversation, meals, and expressing personal identity.

Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore Fishbowl contributor and local freelance writer.


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