21 July 2016 08:35

Although driving is now more commonly associated with road-rage than relaxation – at least in congested urban areas – research into the ways in which the concentration required for driving can positively direct and structure thought raises interesting questions for a ‘driverless’ future.

In her new book, ‘Drivetime’, Professor Lynne Pearce, of Lancaster University’s Department of English and Creative Writing, draws upon a rich archive of British and American literature from the ‘motoring century’ (1900-2000) to explore the sorts of things we think about when driving and has discovered some surprising psychological benefits to being behind the wheel.

While sensations of exhilaration and escape have been associated with driving from its earliest days, less attention has been paid to the ways in which cruising – at a moderate speed or even crawling around country lanes at 20 or 30 mph - can afford drivers of all ages and social classes an invaluable opportunity for problem-solving.

Through her close readings of literary texts – including early twentieth-century motoring periodicals,  Modernist and inter-war fiction, American ‘road-trip’ classics, and contemporary memoirs – Professor Pearce models different types of ‘driving-event’ to reveal the ways in which the car has functioned as  a means of reverie, meditation and problem solving as well as anxiety, frustration, and rage.

Maria Wyeth, the heroine of Joan Didion’s 1970s novel, ‘Play it as it Lays’, is, according to Professor Pearce, an excellent example of how driving can function as an effective alternative to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. 

During a period of acute anxiety and depression, Maria takes to ‘working’ the Los Angeles Freeways on a daily basis when she discovers that the complex lane manoeuvres help her both to think more clearly and to sleep at night.

“Therefore, although driving is now more commonly associated with road-rage than relaxation and the car is facing necessary extinction on environmental grounds, evidence of the ways in which driving can positively direct and structure thought raises interesting questions for our ‘driverless’ future,” explains Professor Pearce, who is also CeMoRe  Director for the Humanities.

“What new thought-space will replace drivetime?”

Professor Pearce’s ‘Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness’ is published by Edinburgh University Press.