When Athena was three, she came into the kitchen to show me the sorry state of the stuffed bear she received for her birthday. She had been doctoring Angel Bear with toothpicks and black hockey tape. There were “bandages” over every inch of the bear’s body, the black pieces obscuring her favorite stuffy’s eyes, nose, and mouth.
Angel Bear looked uncannily like a preemie in the neo-natal ICU. These babies, small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, are on so many life-support systems that their tiny bodies are dwarfed by black wires and plastic tubes.
But Athena had never seen a photo of a preemie or visited a NICU. She conjured up her baby’s bandages, and the accident that led Angel Bear to suffer so much, from her own imagination.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She has nursemaid’s elbow and Car Run Over, that’s a really bad one,” Athena answered solemnly.
“Car Run Over?”
“She was lying in the street resting and a car runned over her with its wheel. She got up from the street and ran onto the sidewalk, and she killed every single car except that one.”
Content that this explained all of Angel Bear’s ailments, Athena ran back to her room to administer a silk-scarf ice pack and baby powder ear medicine.
Car Run Over is actually a catastrophe that I fear. My three older children, Baby Leone, husband and I walk and bike as much as we can. We tool around town on our own power – the kids walking on walls and skipping across benches, the baby looking pensively at the world from her perch in the front carrier when I face her out or snuggled against my chest when I face her in.
We use our car so little that when the battery spluttered and died, James walked clear across town with Etani, who was the baby then, in our green running stroller to buy a new one.
“Want me to bring it out to your car?” the mechanic asked him, smiling at the baby in James’s arms.
“Sure.” James threaded the baby’s foot into the back carrier, jiggled him into place, buckled the straps, and followed the mechanic outside. “Here we are,” he said pointing to the green running stroller. Baby on his back, battery in the stroller, James trudged home.
Our family is anomalous, even in the small town where we live. Although people here in Ashland, Oregon pride themselves on forward thinking, they get in their cars to go everywhere. Our town is only three square miles, but every elementary school in town has a long line of drivers idling their engines waiting to drop off their children. Drivers don’t stop at the crosswalks, and they gun through yellow lights or speed in the school zones. The kids often bolt ahead and I find myself panicking and shouting, “STOP at the corner!”
I imagine a driver taking a turn too sharply and running over one of my children.
“Why don’t you ever drive?” a mother at preschool asked me as I buckled Athena into the bike trailer. She sounded both mystified and judgmental.
Our car is so small that the kids’ car seats used to tremble when you close the doors.
You know the stories you hear of parents soothing their newborns by taking them for a drive?
My firstborn hated the car so much and screamed so loudly that I would intentionally veer towards potholes because the jolting of the car would startle her into silence for a split second.
Besides, I hate cars and I’m terrified of global warming. Once you get out of the habit of relying on them, you realize how expensive, loud, polluting, obnoxious, aesthetically unappealing and confining cars are. Driving is the single most polluting activity most of us do. Cars emit three totally toxic pollutants into the atmosphere: hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxides, which are responsible for generating harmful ground-level ozone, acid rain and poor quality water, among many other nasty things.
We all know that weather patterns are changing globally, with New York having springtime weather in the middle of winter, France being bizarrely chilly in the middle of July and overwhelming floods in Georgia. There are front-page reports in the New York Times of work by scientists who are gathering evidence that shows that disasters like Hurricane Katrina are becoming more frequent as glaciers continue to melt. The very real possibility that we will pollute ourselves out of existence, like most of the cyanobacteria did when their waste product oxygen proved toxic to themselves, scares me and keeps our family out of the car.
Cars are also moving death machines. According to reports by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 37,200 people were killed in highway crashes in 2007 in the United States (more than 100 people a day) and 2,346,000 people were injured.
It’s not that my family doesn’t drive on the highways – we do.
But as much as I can, I want to keep my kids safe, and that means choosing to walk or bicycle over choosing to drive.
I don’t want to die.
I don’t want my children to die in a car crash or as victims of Car Run Over.
So the next time you’re in your car and you see a pedestrian crossing at the corner – maybe a mom and her three-year-old daughter carrying a very beat-up and bandaged bear – I hope you’ll take a minute to cede the right of way.
And maybe next time you have errands to run, you could leave your car keys on the hook by the door and dust off the bicycle that’s been sitting in your garage, or simply walk instead of drive.
It may seem like a small gesture but if we all leave our cars parked more often we just might be saving the world.