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0 Comments | Feb 08, 2010

Looking Back

1966 Dodge Dart 270 Wagon. - 2There would seem to be something inherent, perhaps even genetic, about the need to face in the direction in which one is traveling, i.e. forward. Some of us have occasion, once in a great while, to travel while facing in another direction, and having done it a bit myself, I find it not only unsatisfying, but actually borderline unnerving, in that same hard-to-explain-to-someone-else-without-sounding-like-a-lunatic way that walking up or down a broken escalator is unnerving. It’s as if there are certain mobility-related patterns that get more or less permanently implanted in our minds at a young age, which when countermanded later in life, lead to all sorts of discomfort. I don’t know why this is. I don’t even know why or if it is worth writing about. But I’m going to anyway.

This essay was originally inspired by a recollection from my early adolescence, but it has since grown into a larger, possibly societal, concern. When I was five or thereabouts and living in southern Maine, my maternal grandparents lived a couple of hours away in New Hampshire. They would drive up[1] and visit us occasionally in their 1969 Dodge Dart station wagon, the most notable feature of which was that it had a third row seat in the very back which folded up out of the floor and faced backwards[2]. It’s important to remember here that we are talking about the early sixties, a time when parents could barely spell the word safety, much less concern themselves with it in the rearing of progeny. Also worth noting is that this precedes by nearly a full decade American business catching on to the fact that there was serious money to be made in the pursuit of safety (or at least the appearance of safety). This was a time when safety-related regulation was, in every material way, the Wild West. Parents willingly, enthusiastically, bought their kids giant steel-tipped lawn darts, BB guns, wood-burning kits, chemistry sets, lead-based-painted cribs with balusters that our little heads easily fit through, and even spring-suspended jumper seats[3] that the little ones, if sufficiently enthusiastic and strong of leg muscles, could easily employ to put their heads through a ceiling[4].  If I digress a bit here, it is only to reinforce the generally laissez faire safety attitudes of the time, the better to point out what seem to me to be some rather glaring inconsistencies about how we think about such things nowadays.

But back to the Dodge Dart for a moment. My grandparents, being the pragmatic traditionalists that they were, never, to my recollection, owned any car that wasn’t a station wagon. They went through Ramblers, AMCs, and a host of other manufacturers’ products, most of which companies no longer exist (save for this Dodge). But their purchase of this particular car was, to our juvenile way of thinking, sheer genius, most especially for the rear-facing back seat. It was a full-width bench seat, which meant a comfortable amount of room for me and my two younger sisters. And this seat afforded several other simultaneous benefits apparent only to riders of our age and disciplinary proclivities.

The first, most obvious benefit was that it faced backwards and looked directly through the rear glass. The novelty and utility of this arrangement cannot be overstated, for it meant we were looking straight into the eyes of the driver behind us, and with excellent sight angles to either side as well. And because the seat was relatively high-backed and we, being young children, were short, it meant as well that our actions were completely unobservable by other passengers in the car, in particular the adults in the front seat. That left us free to make all the faces, gestures, and other assorted mischief that our creative pre-pubescent minds could conjure up. It is also worth noting that the seat located us physically as far from the adults in the front as it was possible to get in the car’s enclosed space[5], meaning that even if they did, through some subterfuge, manage to become aware of our histrionics in the back, the very most they could do about it was to shout, or if sufficiently annoyed, actually pull the car off the road. This arrangement thus created an environment of near-total impunity and meant that we could play endless games with other drivers, most of whom found the situation amusing, at least for a little while. And, to our unending delight, those drivers who didn’t find it amusing would invariably employ the expedient of passing my grandfather and gesturing hysterically to him out their windows, trying to communicate in sign language the activities of the miscreants he was carrying in the back. My grandfather, more often than not in the midst of a derisive diatribe from my grandmother, was never in a position to understand or particularly give a shit about the wild gesticulations of his fellow motorists. And even on those rare occasions when he did notice, he would invariably go off on a rant about what a lunatic the other driver was[6], which of course served our purpose nicely.

But returning to the safety theme for a second, it is worth recalling that in these days not only was general safety not exactly a paramount concern, no one much gave a damn about seatbelts either. In fact, while most cars by this point were equipped with them, there were certainly no laws on the books concerning how or when they were to be used, how this use might differ between adults and children, etc. Also, they were at this point only lap belts, i.e. no shoulder harnesses[7]. This meant we were free to hop about and do pretty much whatever we pleased in the back, the only caveat being that the noise needed to be kept below the level at which it began to drown out my grandmother’s haranguing, who was serving as, if you will, our audio camouflage. This mobility left us free to press our faces into the rear window glass[8], change places from time to time, and generally entertain (or irritate, depending on the driver in question) anyone in a car behind us. It was an inevitably entertaining time, my only regret being that they did not come to visit more often than they did[9].

And so it is that this childhood experience has caused me to wonder about the broader question of facing forward vs. backward when traveling. There appears to be some continuing ambiguity about this issue to the present day. Intuition would certainly suggest that, for operators at least, looking in the direction one is moving would win the day every time. However, safety concerns compound this issue somewhat, to the point where it almost seems today that the optimal arrangement is to have the operator of the vehicle (be it an auto, jet plane, or space vehicle) face forward while everyone else faces backwards. One would reasonably think that, having had some level of experience growing up facing backwards in my grandparents’ car, I would be more comfortable than most with this arrangement today as an adult. And yet this is not at all the case. The two most recent situations in which I have found myself pointed the wrong[10] way were on certain 737s that Southwest Airlines used to operate in which a few randomly chosen rows had seats facing the back of the plane[11], and riding on New Jersey Transit trains which have backward-facing seats[12]. In neither case can I truly say that I find it comfortable riding in this manner. And it isn’t just about the view, which in neither case is terribly germane anyway, since you cannot see out the front of a jetliner or a train. Indeed, in both of these cases, one is actually obliged to look out of a side window, so that the sole physiological perturbation is that of watching external objects rush away from rather than toward you.

But my sense of discomfit is not simply about the change in view. It is as well about the “g” forces involved. One reasonably expects, from decades of experience, to be thrust backwards into one’s seat upon accelerating, and to be thrown slightly forward upon braking. Similarly, the expected directions of thrust attending sidewise motions of the vehicle are equally hard-wired, so that when the reverse takes place, in any one, or worse, multiple simultaneous directions, there is, for me anyway, a sort of disturbance of the inner ear that throws everything out of kilter physiologically speaking. If extreme enough, these effects can actually make me ill.

But let us concede for discussion purposes that at least the operators of vehicles ought to face in the direction in which their vehicle is moving[13]. What then of the passengers? It would seem there are at least two factors in play, viz, the passengers’ safety in an accident, and their comfort and psychological well-being during normal travel, though this latter is notably absent from any transport safety decision-making I have encountered, governmental or otherwise. I find it interesting, for example, that the same civilization which has, in recent years, decided that babies ought to face backward in cars until something like age five also believes that space shuttle astronauts, employed by arguably the most safety-conscious bureaucracy known to man[14], are arranged so as to face the front of the shuttle, even though the view is of nothing but a gauge-laden wall. The shuttle though is a rather special case, since it actually spends more of its time in orbit moving backward rather than forward[15].

And since I went to the trouble of bringing it up, it is worth exploring this whole baby-seat thing in greater detail. Ostensibly undertaken in the name of safety, sometime a few years ago it was mandated that all children below a certain weight[16] must sit in separate car seats, and that they be restrained in these seats employing a byzantine system of belts, clips, and harnesses that would confound a Formula One driver[17]. And so it was, for a while, that parents got used to the child being next to them in the front seat facing the dashboard. Only then, in response to what must have been a series of horrific accidents, the rule changed again and the child seat was required to be turned about in the passenger seat so as to face backward[18], a change that made attaching the child seat itself to the car a good bit more challenging. Yet again though, demonstrating the resilience that characterizes safety-conscious parents the world over, they adapted. Finally, in recent years, the rule was updated yet again, and now our progeny must not only face backwards, they must also be situated in the back seat of the car[19], an arrangement which results in the parent being completely unable to touch or even view the child while driving[20].

In response to which at least two newly created issues occur to me[21], one directly germane to my original theme, the other less so but interesting nonetheless. The first issue has less to do with moving the child into the back seat and more to do with forcing them to ride backwards in the car seat. Given how much time young children spend in automobiles in their first five or so years, it seems we have adopted, either unwittingly or intentionally, a view toward evolving future generations in the direction of actually preferring backward-facing travel, seeing as how child psychologists are forever telling us that most of our developmental imprinting happens in our first half-decade. This could mean that while we are ostensibly keeping our children safer in their infancy, we are at the same time raising a generation that will have a much tougher time learning to do basic things like ride a bike, drive a car, etc. simply because they’ve grown so used to traveling backwards. Nothing of course can be proven about this hypothesis, as the child-seat changes are still relatively recent and their long-term effects not yet possible to discern.

The second consequence of backward-facing kids placed in the back seat has nothing to do with travel preferences per se. It is simply the observation that a child sitting in a back seat facing no one and nothing but the back of the rear seat seems likely to have some long-term bonding issues with the parent doing the driving. I confess I am no child development expert, but it is my understanding that a big part of children relating to their parents comes from the more or less constant eye contact they tend to have in their earliest years. Driving to the grocery store and back staring at a back seat would seem fraught with opportunity to stunt such development. Summary version of these two effects combined—we risk raising a generation of kids who prefer facing backwards when they are in cars and who do not relate well to their parents.

One final point is worth exploring briefly on this business of optimal directions to face when traveling. Aside from the forward/backward decision, there are a few situations you will encounter in life, depending on your affluence and where you live, in which you might also find yourself sitting sideways while traveling. The two examples that come readily to mind are limousines and subway cars. In either case an entirely new set of dynamics takes effect, and indeed this sideways arrangement can be said to be inferior to either of the previously described arrangements, simply because while facing backwards, as fraught as it is with physiological issues of comfort, it can at least be plausibly argued that you are safer should your vehicle have a head-on collision (in that you are less likely to fly through a windshield or get whiplash), the sideways arrangement offers neither a vision benefit like facing forward, nor a safety benefit, since any head-on impact will simply pitch you violently to your left or right, depending on which side of the vehicle you happen to be sitting. In addition, facing sideways would seem to maximize one’s situational confusion, since all of the scenery outside the windows is neither gradually approaching nor departing, but rather rushing by at such speed as to be largely indiscernible to all but the most perspicacious riders.

All of which takes us precisely where? It’s hard to draw much insight from these observations other than the entirely obvious assertion that we have become a society so paranoid and frightened of the world around us that we now feel the need to do everything we can, whatever the cost or level of ridiculousness, to mitigate any possible chance of injury or even exposure to risk. And in some cases we take these measures to such unbelievable extremes that we risk actually causing more problems than we originally set out to conquer. In our youth we ate dirt, slept in lead-painted cribs, and hopped around in the back seat of the car with the dog while our parents filled the inside of the car with cigarette smoke and screamed at each other incessantly instead of watching the road. Yet against all odds the great majority of us survived, and we were the stronger for it. Today our kids are safely ensconced in their $300 rear-facing car seats while mom sits in the driver’s seat doing seventy down the freeway peering into a mirror to try to see the kid while talking on the cell phone, steering with her knees, eating a sandwich, putting on makeup in the mirror and texting her girlfriend. So maybe things haven’t changed all that much after all. Many today are so afraid of life that they may as well just wrap themselves in bubble wrap before leaving the house in the morning. Only be sure to face forward as you travel. That way you can see all the terrible things heading your way.

[1] They were a very traditional couple in the following senses – a) they remained married their entire adult lives, b) my grandfather handled all the driving, with my grandmother not getting her first license until my grandfather’s passing, by which time she was well into her sixties, c) while he was handling said driving duties, she would sit next to him and harangue him with unending critiques of his driving to the point where it remains a wonder that he did not have a heart attack right there in the car. Instead he settled for the not infrequent brief outburst of surprisingly vivid and creative language, which invariably quieted her down for five minutes or so before the cycle would repeat itself, which happened at roughly five-minute intervals for about fifty years.

[2] The car had also been retrofitted with a locomotive horn and supplementary 24-volt battery system to drive it (my grandfather worked for the Maine Central Railroad for many years), proving that the old man had something of a sense of humor. Neither the horn nor the trail of havoc it left throughout New England during the early sixties, are germane to this story.

[3] This last item, trade name Johnny Jumper, can apparently still, against all odds, be purchased, at least on the web.

[4] Since these devices were typically installed in wide doorways, that meant fontanel-denting impacts with wood doorframes rather than sheetrock ceilings. Big difference!

[5] Which was considerable, what with it being a station wagon. I tried looking up the actual wheelbase of this car on the web, just to add veracity to the description, but gave up after a tepid attempt. You’ll just have to take my word for it—the car was long.

[6] Interesting cultural digression. My grandfather’s rants at other drivers invariably invoked some version of a statement about the other driver having gotten his driver’s license at Sears, a reference that eludes me to this day, as I can find no historical record of Sears & Roebuck Company ever having issued driving credentials of any kind during or prior to this period. This particular reference continues in wide use to this day.

[7] The first three point seat belt (the so-called CIR-Griswold restraint) was patented in 1951 by the Americans Roger W. Griswold and Hugh De Haven, and developed to its modern form by Nils Bohlin for Swedish manufacturer Volvo – who introduced it in 1959 as standard equipment. American auto companies were not exactly zealous in adopting this innovation (until forced to do so), particularly what with it having been invented by a “foreigner.”

[8] Which imprints my grandfather never seemed to figure out but about which he would curse with remarkable vigor whenever called upon to clean them off. One would think that any degree of forensic acuity would have readily revealed not only the source of the greasy smudges, but the actual perpetrator as well, for each face print was as unique as and more easily observable than a fingerprint.

[9] It occurs to me only now as I write this that the engineers at Dodge must, when designing my grandparents’ car, have really not given much thought at all to what would happen to rear-seat occupants in a rear-end collision. Not only were our faces about a foot from the rear glass, we were as well sitting directly on top of the gas tank, all of which may have something to do with why you can’t buy this sort of car today.

[10] Though I am not yet prepared to pass judgment on which facing direction is “right” or “wrong”, I use the possibly pejorative terminology here simply as a matter of reference.

[11] A scheme they have since abandoned, so far as I am aware, and for what reason I have no idea.

[12] In fact, NJT trains are unique in having seats with a hinged/movable back that allows any given row to face either forward or backward at the rider’s discretion, suggesting an interesting and possibly illuminating sociological study.

[13] While noting that this concession was not at all obvious to NASA in the earliest days of the space program. Imagine trying to drive your car backward at high speed while looking only in the rear-view mirror, and you will have a pretty good idea of what the space agency actually contemplated for the Mercury program.

[14] Challenger and Columbia accidents notwithstanding.

[15] I.e., in the interest of clarity, with its ass-end pointing in the direction of travel. It is only upon descent into the atmosphere that the vehicle is turned around so as to fly nose-first.

[16] Interesting as well that all such rules are weight- rather than age-based, which results in small, typically female, kids not infrequently occupying baby seats well past the age of six or seven.

[17] It is only a matter of time before the government and industry catches on to the HANS (Head And Neck Support) device that auto-racing has been using for the past few years. These are rigid structures worn around the neck and attached to the vehicle which ostensibly keep the driver’s head from flailing about during an impact. The marketing potential to parents for such a device should by now be self-evident. These could be sold as stand-alone devices, or preferably as an integral part of yet another generation of child seats, again rendering obsolete the current ones. And you thought replacing your videotapes with DVDs was irritating.

[18] This change came about with the broad implementation of passenger-side airbags, the realization being that junior might not fare too well in a frontal accident that resulted in a bean-bag-chair-sized air bag suddenly exploding into his already-suitably-restrained and presumably quite tender face.

[19] The realization this time being that even if facing backward in the front seat, the discharging air bag would slam the child seat into the back of the adult seat, leaving a nice imprint of junior’s face in said seat back, thus potentially lowering the resale value of the automobile.

[20] This last completely unacceptable fact having created an entirely new industry that sells convex mirrors, closed-circuit televisions, and other Rube Goldberg apparatuses to price-inelastic parents for the sole purpose of indirectly viewing the child in the back seat. But I’m sure that had nothing to do with it. And while we’re impugning the motives of government regulators and corporate marketing types, it is worth noting as well that each change in car-seat placement rules results in the immediate obsolescence of that generation of child seats, which of course means they all have to be replaced at great cost with the new compliant (for now) models.

[21] Full disclosure – I am not a parent and so have not personally experienced anything discussed in this essay as relates to children and/or their seats. I’ve heard plenty of stories though.

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