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The Unconscious Causes of Car Accidents

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Attitudes. The good driver, as we have described him, always knows what he is doing when he is at the wheel of his car. His safe driving habits are "automatic" reactions or responses to stimuli without interference or misdirection by unconscious motivations of which he himself is not aware. Under conditions of emotional stress, an ordinarily good driver may become temporarily a poor and dangerous driver. The big pool of poor drivers, however, and the still-wider stream of "accident-prone" persons, is made up of individuals who do not really know what they are doing because they are unaware of or will not accept the deep unconscious motivations, the dangerously overworked mental mechanisms, that basically control their attitudes and their conduct.

To understand the attitudes which make some people exceptionally bad risks as car drivers, it must be frankly recognized that in modern Western society the car is regarded as more than a cheap and convenient means of transportation and its value is measured in terms other than either the weight of metal in it or even its cost in dollars.

The car is used as a symbol a common, tangible, evident symbol of many factors in the life of the Western individual and community. This symbolization of the car goes far beyond the obvious facts. True enough, the kind of car a man drives is often taken as a measure of his status or prestige in the community, although this is by no means universally so. Equally true, the right of a young man to drive the family car is a token of the independence he has achieved and a measure of the degree of maturity and responsibility which his family thinks he has attained.

The more basic fact is that almost every single mental mechanism of which the human mind is capable can be expressed in feeling and action related to driving or owning an car. The car becomes not only an extension of the ego; it also symbolizes other family relationships, and it substitutes for both love and hate objects. Many people become poor, dangerous, accident-prone drivers because they use the role of driving as an outlet for subconscious reactions whose origins have nothing to do with the realistic act of transporting themselves from one place to another by means of an car.

We will not repeat the entire roll call of the mental mechanisms here. We shall simply give a few examples of how they come out in terms of bad driving and car accidents.

Repression. A poor driver may really hate driving because, for example, he may be trying to repress memory of an car accident of which he was once a cause, a victim, or a witness.

Identification. A poor driver may identify the act of driving a car with a family member, usually a father, toward whom he still has unresolved aggressions. He may subconsciously want to hurt his father by getting into an accident and hurting his car.