I Can Drive I-5

At the risk of sounding like a bad urbanist, I’ve made it a priority this year to start driving a car again.

I grew up in the suburbs, where driving is an absolute necessity. When I received my driver’s license about 25 years ago, I became the de facto chauffeur for my friend group, and I enjoyed that role. During my time in and just after college, day-long road trips were normal for me. The joy of seeing new places with friends and family outweighed the stress of navigating without a smartphone.

My relationship with driving changed significantly after I moved to Seattle in 2006. My new employer gave me a free transit pass and charged for parking, and I started commuting almost entirely by bus or on foot. With incentives provided by the city of Seattle, I sold my car in 2007 and began to rely instead on a series of car sharing services: Flexcar, Zipcar, car2go, ReachNow, LimePod, and, currently, Gig.

I kept up the transit commute habit, and I started biking to work about six years ago, for both speed and exercise. Then, a series of events halted my drive to drive for much of this decade.

In January 2019, while attempting to merge onto Interstate 5 under the convention center in Seattle, traffic in front of me slowed down, and I couldn’t stop in time; I crashed into the car in front of me, and it in turn crashed into a third car. Fortunately, no one was injured. On the day, I thought my biggest cost associated with the crash would be the ticket that the Washington State Patrol wrote me for driving too fast for conditions. (I didn’t bother to argue it; the laws of physics backed up the trooper’s ticket.) I was in the process of moving to a new house at the time, and I continued to do a few drives from my old place, shuttling fragile items in and bringing empty boxes out of the new house. I didn’t take I-5, though. My new home is much further away from the interstate than my old one was, so I didn’t really think much of the choice.

In January 2020, around the first anniversary of the crash, I started seeing a therapist, with the goal of regaining my nerve. Then, COVID-19 shut down everything around me, and we were all urged to stay home for the common good. Delivery services of all sorts kept me fed and kept my cupboards stocked, although for a brief period in the spring, I wondered whether I’d need to get a car of my own, in case those services became unavailable. During COVID lockdowns, I avoided a lot of small shared spaces, and I decided not to take a chance with a shared car that might have been used recently by an ill driver or passenger.

Despite my then-employer’s wildly optimistic plans to reopen offices a few months into the pandemic, I continued working from home for effectively all of 2020 and 2021. After not driving at all in 2020, I drove a car just once in 2021, an eight-mile ride to two local businesses, and I was trembling for hours from the adrenaline rush of going as fast as 30 miles per hour on my own. In 2022, I didn’t drive at all. I had little confidence in my driving ability after my crash in 2019, but after years of little to no driving, I was concerned that my skills had deteriorated even further.

While COVID remains a major health issue – and I contracted it myself, for at least the third time, three months ago – I decided earlier this year that I wanted to get back to visiting friends, family, and interesting places not accessible by bike or public transit. As I had started to do in 2020, I worked with a professional to discuss my anxiety about driving. I found a helpful, hourlong video by mental health professionals about driving anxiety. I bought a “non-owner” car insurance policy that, because of my 16 years without insurance, is considered pretty high-risk. In the spring, I booked a Gig car and drove for about a mile to a local bakery, feeling like I was on top of the world for having practiced a dormant skill. Then, in March, I booked another car and headed north to Lynnwood’s Alderwood Mall, taking I-5 for the first time in over four years.

For me, the most terrifying aspect of being on a roller coaster isn’t the high speeds, but that ratcheting rise to the top, anticipating the sudden drop. That was my sensation on March 11 as I wended my way through north Seattle to the I-5 on-ramp near Northgate Station, about five miles north of where I had crashed in 2019. Merging on, accelerating, and keeping my place in the slow lane were not anywhere near as difficult as the path to the on-ramp was. I made it to my destination, bought a few things, and returned home, taking I-5 back to town. I still struggle to explain to people how exciting it was to travel 15 miles to the suburbs to buy a cookie and a case of sparkling water. This wasn’t a cure, but it was a major step forward.

I can drive on an interstate again; that’s one more “normal” thing that I can do as I had done before the pandemic. Rediscovering how to drive made it possible for me to visit my goddaughter for her birthday; I hadn’t seen her since before 2019. I also feel just a bit more confident that I can visit other places in the Pacific Northwest that I haven’t been to in years, or at all. I’ve been driving about once a month, to keep in practice. I hope that carsharing companies like Gig stay in business; by my choice, I’m dependent on an industry that is raising prices, having trouble with car availability, and that is free to impose restrictions on its customers. I’m grateful that, at least for now, it’s keeping me mobile.