Back in 1965, there was a sitcom called “My Mother the Car.” In it, Jerry Van Dyke’s character purchased an old car into which his mother had reincarnated. She talked to him through the radio. In one episode, for example, Mother got drunk on antifreeze. Hilarious! Or not. TV Guide declared it the second-worst TV show of all time (right behind “The Jerry Springer Show”).
A few months ago, I was in an accident. My car was T-boned by another car that ran a stop sign at a four-way stop. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the insurance company declared my 2008 Prius, with only 28,000 miles on it, a complete loss.
So I went car shopping and purchased a new 2017 Prius. I had no idea I was purchasing a real version of “My Mother the Car.”
My own mother was an incorrigible backseat driver. She’d “helpfully” call out road signs and traffic reports.
“There’s a stop sign coming up.” “The speed limit is only 25.” “Everybody’s slowing down up ahead.”
She didn’t reincarnate into my new car, but sometimes it seems like she could have.
The new car has all the safety bells and whistles that are standard now. There’s the alert to let me know there’s a car in my blindspot or that I’m drifting out of the lane when driving. There are beeps that tell me there’s traffic crossing behind me as I back out of the driveway or that there’s something too close to the front, side, or back of the car.
All these safety features are good for drivers. Two recent studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that cars equipped with lane-keeping and blindspot detection systems reduced both the number of collisions and the severity of any collisions that do occur.
But the sensors that tell me something is close are a real pain when I pull into my driveway. I have plants in my front yard, and as I pull in, the sensors start going crazy, beeping faster and faster and faster. It feels like the car is screaming: “Oh my God! There’s something by the right front bumper. Now, it’s on the side of the car. Look out! Stop! Stop! Stop!”
All this for a tall plant that won’t even scratch the paint.
It’s as if my mother is in the car, warning me of things both serious (the blindspot detectors) and not (the plants near the car), as she did in real life.
The new Prius also grades my driving performance. When I turn off the car, a note pops up on the digital dashboard that gives me a grade for how eco-friendly my driving has been. (My best score so far has been 85 out of 100.) The car then offers “helpful” tips on how to get a better score next time: Don’t accelerate — or decelerate — so fast. Maintain a more constant speed. Set the temperature control higher.
I sometimes find myself arguing with the car about these tips: “I got overheated at the gym and just wanted to cool off.” Or: “It’s hard to decelerate slowly when you’re going down a steep hill.”
But to be honest, these tips do make me think about my driving habits. I do find myself trying to accelerate from a stop sign more smoothly and slowly. I do think about keeping the temperature a little warmer than I might otherwise prefer. The tips serve as constant reminders of good driving practices.
But the safety alerts and “nagging” also remind me of the steady stream of warnings and reminders that came from my mother whenever she was a passenger in my — or anyone else’s — car.
“My Mother the Car” may have been a really bad TV show. But the way current cars implement the idea may result in safer, more eco-friendly driving. And that’s good for all of us, not just a character played by Jerry Van Dyke.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.