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Romancing the open road

Since the days of the Model A, Americans have had a love affair with the automobile. In the 1940s, everyone took a turn getting their kicks on Route 66. In the 1950s, thousands of American families posed for photographs in front of the "new family car."

Today, classic car models from the 1960s and '70s are treated like Stradivarius fiddles.

All that helps to explain the recent Transportation Department survey that finds there are more cars in the country than people to drive them. The 107 million households in the United States average 1.8 drivers per household but 1.9 automobiles.

The figures led Robert Lang, a researcher at Virginia Tech, to conclude America has "a real love of the road."

There is also a real love of convenience.

Few American companies go broke by making life more convenient for people. And the more cars a family has, the less time people have to spend shuttling each other around and lending out keys.

And cars are out there for the taking. In the past, where many automobiles would go belly-up after 100,000 miles, now they last 200,000 miles and sell cheap. And having two breadwinners in the family means having more money to buy top-end, often extravagant recreation vehicles.

Columnist Russell Baker once said he refused to drive a car that cost more than his father's home. He would probably have to amend that now and say his father's first three homes.

Is all this "auto-sufficiency" a healthy trend?

In terms of physical health, probably not. American teenagers are more overweight and out-of-shape than kids in other countries. American adults are not much better off. And one reason is wheels are so plentiful.

Also, many planners express concerns that modern America is being built around the automobile. The average American makes four separate car trips a day. Communities are becoming more spread out and laced with roads. Commuting to work is a way of life. And the need for highways and byways takes a toll on the pocketbook and, in many cases, on the natural environment.

Still, reversing the trend will be a very hard sell. It would mean undoing 100 years of romance with the road and replacing it with something akin to "civic responsibility."

Selling that point of view to oldsters is one thing.

But selling it to the footloose soul free-wheeling down I-15 with the wind at his back and a song in his heart will be quite another.