BY MORDECHAI SCHMUTTER
A new study in Britain says that driving makes people less intelligent. And I say, “Baruch Hashem.” I thought it was just me.
But that does explain a lot. For example, it explains why pedestrians have the right of way.
Sure, there are plenty of dumb things we do even without our cars. Do you ever go into a room and then forget why you came in? Based on the results of this study, if you drive long enough, you’re going to get to your destination and forget why you drove there. I do this all the time when we go to my in-laws.
But if a pedestrian does something ridiculous, we don’t judge him as much. If someone does one dumb thing in a car, you’ll say, “He’s a bad driver.” No one says, “He’s a bad walker.” He happens to be walking badly at the moment, but this is probably not how he walks all the time.
No one really thinks of himself as an above-average walker.
But people do dumb things while driving all the time. For instance, we’ve all seen the guy who thinks he can hold his mattress on top of his car with one hand, the guy driving around with a cup of coffee on his roof, and the guy who just tosses garbage on the floor of the car like the cleaning lady comes in there once a week.
Also, an ever-growing number of people look at little screens while driving. Especially since we make some screens specifically for that purpose. Now, granted, it’s safer to drive while looking at a GPS than to drive while folding a map. But, for example, I have one relative who cannot drive without a minimum of 2 GPSs in the car — one with a male voice and one with a female voice, so she can tell them apart. And they’re arguing the entire time. It’s like she’s driving around with an old married couple trying to give her directions.
We also all eat while driving, but we’re not very smart about it. And I’m not just talking about sipping yogurt out of the container like it’s coffee. (“Do you have a milk mustache?” “No, it’s yogurt.”)
For example, once in a while, if I’m done teaching at the mesivta for the day and I have an appointment somewhere that I need to run off to, I go into the yeshiva dining room and help myself to some chicken. (Five nights a week there’s chicken.) And I’m not going to attempt to drive while eating a thigh, so I take a couple of drumsticks that I can eat with my hands. (And before you say, “Like an animal,” I should point out that animals don’t eat with their hands.)
One evening I was eating a chicken leg while driving, and I had another one in a bowl on the console between the seats, and by the time I was up to that second leg, it had fallen out of the bowl. So I picked it up and was holding it in one hand and trying to clean the console with a tissue in the other hand, and then the light turned green, and I had to turn the car with the wrist of the hand in which I was holding the chicken leg, and that is how my dashboard came to be fleishig.
Arguably, I should really start keeping cutlery in the glove compartment instead of those papers we never look at.
And why does the guy in front of you drive slower than the speed limit when he sees a cop? Is the cop going to say, “Oh, I guess he was driving 30 on the highway this entire time”? All day long, everyone he sees is doing 30 on the highway. That doesn’t sound right. This is why he sometimes gives out tickets for going too slowly.
I’m definitely not always on the ball when I’m on the road. For example, the other day I saw a car with a sticker that said, “This car stops at all railroad crossings.” And somehow, I accidentally read it as, “This car doesn’t stop at all railroad crossings.” And I said, “Whoa, that’s adamant. Good luck with that.” Also, I said it to myself. No one else was in the car with me. I think I was talking to the car.
Another example: My wife and I have a minivan and a small commuter car. The minivan officially gets parked in the driveway so that it’s easier to unload, and also because the entire point of getting a small car is that we can fit into tighter spots.
But if I come home driving the small car and my wife happens to be out with the van and the driveway is empty, I’ll assume that I’m in the van and pull into the driveway. Never mind that my car is about two inches from the ground and has a very different feel — I will assume I’m in the van. And then I’ll get out of the car, feel the height difference, and say, “Wait. This isn’t the van.” (I’m still talking to the car.) And then I have to get back in and pull out of the driveway so my wife doesn’t come along and think she’s in the small car.
And in fact, I was already getting less intelligent the first time I drove. (Actually, I think it was the second. The first time was when I found out that when your foot is not on the gas OR the brake, the car still moves. Bumper cars are very misleading.)
When I was still learning to drive, I wasn’t so clear on some of the rules. Like, for example, I knew that you were supposed to stop on red. But what if it turns red when you’re in the middle of an intersection? Are you supposed to just stop where you are, like when you’re playing “Red Light, Green Light”? Or should you finish going through the intersection? This wasn’t covered in the manual.
And it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t know the answer until the first time a light turned red while I was right under it. So I guessed. And my father panicked because it turns out I guessed wrong. So why on earth do they even call that game “Red Light, Green Light” if that’s not how lights work? Childhood does NOT prepare you to be a good driver.
And all this is why, when you’re in a car, your main priority is to get to where you’re going and get out of the car. It’s some primal urge of self-preservation. It’s also why the person who isn’t driving is supposed to be the navigator. Sometimes drivers get lost, but their passengers always know which way they were supposed to go. “You should have made that turn back there. If I was driving…”
No, if you were driving, YOU would have missed that turn, and I’D be correcting you.
Yet the researchers wanted to conduct a study to make it official. (They decided that in the car on the way to work.) According to the article I read, “They analyzed more than 500,000 middle-aged adults between 37 and 73 over the course of five years.”
This is fairly alarming, because it means I’m middle-aged.
The article also says that they gave many of these people IQ tests. Plural. I think they sat people down and had them take IQ tests, and then they put these people behind the wheel of a car and had them take more IQ tests. And it turns out the people who survived didn’t do as well the second time. Also, they drove right past the research center.
Either way, what they found is that a person’s intelligence decreases over time if he drives for more than two hours a day, which is basically your life if you have a commute or drive a lot of carpool.
They think it’s either because we’re spending too much of the day not occupying our minds or because sitting still for that long is not great for anybody.
So if you have an option, you’re better off taking public transportation. (For your commute, I mean. If you herd all of your neighbor’s kids onto public transportation when it’s your turn to do carpool, then it’s probably too late for you.) If you take the train, you can spend the time improving your mind — reading, learning, sleeping, eating chicken legs like a mentch… But that does explain why, when the train conductor announces the next stop, you can barely understand him. It’s not the speakers. It’s the twenty-first century. You have better speakers than that on the two GPSs in your car. It’s the driver, who can barely string together a sentence anymore. But it’s a living.
The researchers suggest that people who want to save their brains should minimize time on the road and “find activities that are more mentally stimulating.” Such as filing for unemployment.
Or maybe we can keep our minds active while driving, by listening to shiurim (though our Rebbeim might not want to be driven back and forth over town all day), by learning a new language (worst-case scenario, you can use it to yell at the other drivers), or by attempting to drive under the advisement of three or four GPSs. Everyone has his own methods of staving off insanity.
Mine is talking to myself.
Mordechai Schmutter is a freelance writer/editor and a humor columnist for Inyan, as well as a published author. He can be contacted through Inyan.
Caution: Taking the ideas and halachos expressed in this article literally can be hazardous to your health.