A Car Named Haig: Driving Seen Decreasingly as Compulsory

Kids these days. Are they assimilated into car culture as ruthlessly and inevitably as ever?

My frame of reference goes back a few years.

When I turned 16, I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license, but I wasn’t very interested in having a job. I got my license, and started driving my mom’s car occasionally.

Then my mother told me that I’d have to pay the difference in our family’s insurance premium. I said, Fine. I just won’t drive. (The classic posture of a 16-year-old who rebels against only the non-provisioned aspects of life.)

Our insurance agent said, Uh. As long as you have a 16-year-old male with a driver’s license, I’m going to have to charge you the higher rate — even if you say you won’t drive.

So on a sad and solemn day, not unlike the ceremony when a bull becomes a steer, I turned in my license. I felt like less of a man. But I lived.

For the next two years I lived a life where I had the potential to drive, but did not. Around the time I turned draft age, Ronald Reagan was president, and I had become aware of the politics of oil. Thank you, Iran Hostage Crisis.

I started to contemplate life without owning a car. Could I purify myself of my involvement in this dirty business? What would be the personal consequences? Could I get by with just a bike and public transportation? These idealistic thoughts were in the hypothetical phase, and never made it to the investigating phase.

One day, near the end of my senior year of high school, my mom announced, I just bought you a car. Now you can start looking for a job.

Well, there went that idea.

Chevy Vega
Haig | Photo: my scrapbook

It was a piece of junk: an old Chevy Vega with a giant bite out of the front fender — like it had been attacked by a shark and barely survived.

It had an eight-track player, which at the time was already an anachronism.

I think she paid about $125.

Secretary of State Alexander Haig
Secretary of State Alexander Haig | Photo: Wikipedia

I nicknamed the car Haig, after Reagan’s Secretary of State.

(It was General Alexander Haig, old people will recall, who contributed to the “vital national interest” rationale for military action in order to protect America’s access to all the world’s yummy oil. And did I mention I was draft age?)

Thanks to Haig (the car), I developed the habits of car ownership until they became second nature. I learned to accept the costs and nuisances of car ownership as facts of life.

I learned how to disconnect the fuel line from the carburetor, poke it into a soda can, crank the starter so that a little gas would go into the can, reconnect the fuel line, and prime the carburetor with gas from the can so that Haig would start.

I got a job too.

I’d bike commute occasionally — frequently even — in good weather. It took more than 20 years before I would first make bike commuting my norm, and then revisit the idea of not owning a car.

So what about kids these days?

Do they have the nascent geopolitical consciousness that I was developing when I hit driving age? Will that inform their choice to drive or not to drive?

Or is it just a whole lot easier to text and spend time online?

Grist: Driving has lost its cool for young Americans
Screen Capture: Grist.org

I have a 16-year-old in my life now; one without a drivers license: my stepson. Sure, he’d like a driver’s license — in the same theoretical way that he’d like a pet crocodile. But his life goes on pretty much unfettered without it. We live in a bike-friendly, walkable city with a pretty good bus system.

When it comes time to motivate him to start making some money, it’ll be much more effective to leverage his cell phone and Internet access than it will to leverage anything to do with his access to a car.

And this all concurs with some recent evidence that “American teenagers are increasingly losing interest in driving.”

In 2008, just 31 percent of American 16-year-olds had their driver’s licenses, down from 46 percent in 1983… The numbers were down for 18-year-olds too, from 80 percent in 1983 to 65 percent in 2008, and the percentage of twenty- and thirtysomethings with driver’s licenses fell as well. And even those with driver’s licenses are trying to drive less; … more than half of drivers under the age of 44 are making efforts to reduce the time they spend packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes.


“American youth have fallen out of love with automobiles” because of the rising cost of driving and the fact that they are “living their lives online,” says Wall Street Journal auto columnist Dan Neil. No longer do teenagers need to drive to each others’ houses or the mall to stay in touch with friends; they do it online.

Although this Website is not necessarily about promoting car-free living, I find much encouragement in the evidence that car ownership and driving is decreasingly seen as compulsory.

I like to think that my stepson, faced with the same dilemmas I faced of earning a living and mobility, will find the idea of living without a car less hypothetical and less daunting than I did at his age.

I’m sure as hell not giving him a car.

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9 thoughts on “A Car Named Haig: Driving Seen Decreasingly as Compulsory”

  1. Ted, you and I are about the same age so I grew up in the shadow of the hostage crisis and all the predictions of a later Middle East crisis over oil. Do you recall that there was even an arch of the TV series “Dallas” in which JR Ewing tries to start a war in order to increase the price of oil? They really jumped the shark big time with that one but who knew how close reality would eventually imitate art (or trash when you think about it).

    My career choices haven’t actually provided me with the type of income that would allow me to just run out and fill up the tank without a bit of planning on where to buy and how much I was going to drive until the next fillup. Were I in college today, there’d be no way I could afford to gas up a car.
    Mostly, I’ve always lived on a budget and my car buying choices have been primarily based on miles per gallon. A car is a mere tool for getting from point A to point B. When gas prices shot up following Katrina in 2005, it was a no-brainer that I’d be riding the bus more often or walking whenever possible. After moving here, taking up bike commuting was easy since Flagstaff is so small and has good bike infrastructure.

    I’m not surprised to read that today’s youth are less enamored by car ownership than my generation. There’s something about being car obsessed that just strikes me as so middle aged and five minute ago. All that money required to maintain a car could be better used to support the social activites that today’s youth prioritize. Malls are dead zones. A growing segment of young people today prefer coffee shops and connecting over social media. They’re gravitating to urban centers close to cool things to do, with easy access to public transit. A car is just a ball and chain.

  2. BluesCat says:

    Now, I grew up, and turned 16, in the middle Sixties. The years of the Muscle Cars (I STILL lust over owning a 1969 Plymouth GTX with a 440 Super Commando; no effeminate “Hemi” for THIS Cat!). Not having a driver’s license simply wasn’t an option.

    Then, in 1973, the year I was driving a Mercury with a 390ci engine, the Arab Oil Embargo hit. Long lines at the gas stations required your license plate to have an even number on even-numbered calendar days, and odd numbers on odd-numbered days. I bought a brown Schwinn Varsity (cost me a hundred bucks) and that was my first experience with bike commuting. People thought I was nuts, but I discovered it was a lot of fun.

    Pretty much the same as TODAY!

    Oh, and by the way … Ted? I think the General Haig is a Vega, not a Nova.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      I think you’re right about the Vega. Have to update that.

  3. Dr. M says:

    I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was about 25. I took mass transit to work during my summers off from college. I also used both the campus bus and a moped during the semester. I’d moped in 16 degree weather with a parka over my helmet. Snow, sleet, etc.
    My point is that I survived and only owed a paltry $200 for an emergency student loan when I finished. I would not have had enough to pay for my college and living expenses. Kids are seeing this now too. I own a lovely car but bike most of my errands if the weather is good. I have nothing to prove but our teen knows getting a license = getting a full time job to pay for the insurance jump. Needless to say, she is an avid cyclist and is in fantastic shape. College, here she comes!

  4. Island Dave says:

    I was 19 when I got a drivers license and my first car in 1972. I had had a learners permit back when I was 16 and took Drivers Ed but we were a car free family in suburban Washington DC and I rode everywhere.
    Almost 40 years later, now a single parent with two teenage girls, after being car light for years, we are now car free. We use our Santana Triplet and or Burley Rock & Roll Tandem when riding with both or just one kid and a Velomobile Quest when riding solo. All our errands and grocery shopping is done by pedal power.

  5. Douglas Fawkes says:

    I have ridden a bike since I was a child. Then I used it for going to school, afterwards it was a natural for work, attending college, bicycle touring, etc. I have had my share of cars and motorcycles but I have always kept riding the bicycles. I’m 56 years old and I have the health of a healthy teenager and riding the bike was part of my health plan. Presently in Nassau, Bahamas we are a car crazy island. The bike enables me to move freely without the frequent jams and gridlock that we have. Ted I enjoyed reading your article. Keep up the good work…. Douglas

  6. colleen says:

    We have not owned a car for almost three years now. We are quite proud and figure if we can do it in PHOENIX, we can do it anywhere. Of course, we don’t have kids to shuffle around, but groceries are delivered, and anything we need is within biking distance, or walking distance. If we hanker a visit to the mall, the bus gets us there in 20 minutes. When I do borrow a car for a day of errands or something, I GET SO STRESSED OUT. Parking, traffic lights, other drivers!!! I’d much rather walk or ride the bus. Yes, this is the life! And yes, I do remember BOTH Haigs. Unmistakable in a parking lot…or a sound bite.
    your old friend who was greatly influenced by your Haig days

  7. Rider says:

    The Vega — a nice-looking car that turned out the be a lemon. A rust-bucket, and that was just the start. That’s how Mom got such a good price. You had to give those cars away.

    My girlfriend had a brand-new Vega GT (a hatchback). Sexy car, with racing stripes. A winning design, visually. But automatic with limited power. Then the trouble started with the iron block and aluminum heads. Her car turned into a heap of junk.

    One of General Motor’s great disasters of the 1970s and 1980s, the first but not the last. My best buddy’s dad brought a new Chevrolet — an ugly piece of work, circa 1980 — and after several months discovered it had a cracked block. It was a POS in a number of other ways as well.

    Amazing that GM ever survived those lost decades.

  8. norm says:

    The last time I drove a car to work on a regular basis, I was 18. I grew up. 😉

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