America’s “Car Culture” Starts From Childhood Toys

As a small child my toy cabinet was filled with toy cars of all types: Hot Wheels, Lego cars, and more. Lightning McQueen captured my attention when I turned on the TV. As I got older, there were video games like Forza and Rocket League, and eventually when I turned 16, I could drive. 

From a young age, the magic of driving is ingrained into us. You look forward to your 16th birthday because it’s when you can start driving. Driving is a rite of passage for many teenagers. However, the sinister side of America’s early driving culture is that it continues the cycle of car attachment that has been imbued into children through the everyday content that they digest. Toy cars crowd playrooms all across America. Think of the Hollywood action movies that you’ve watched: how often has there not been a car-chase scene? What about the video games you play? Songs? “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo comes to mind. Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the United States.1The New York Times. “One Thing We Can Do: Drive Less.” Published 2019. Accessed 2023. Yet, cars are so ingrained into our culture that the only thing many of us think twice about when purchasing one is the price. 

This is not to say that early exposure to car culture is the only reason that we have such a car-centric culture. Lack of public transportation and other factors also contribute to the problem.2The New York Times. “America Has Long Favored Cars over Trains and Buses. Can Biden Change That?” Published 2021. Accessed 2023.; Bloomberg. “9 Reasons the U.S. Ended up so Much More Car-Dependent than Europe.”, February 4, 2014. Accessed June 22, 2023. However, one must pause to think about the impact that this early car culture has on our consciousness. Cars are already the norm from a young age, and research shows that the toys that young children are exposed to affect their future preferences.3Dolan, Eric W. “New Psychology Study Shows How Parents Can Influence Their Children’s Toy Preferences.” PsyPost, September 5, 2018. Accessed June 22, 2023. “For kids, everything is educational… Everything they interact with teaches them what the world is like and in turn what they themselves are like in the world… And we know that if things are familiar, we’re more comfortable with them…” said Christia Brown, Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky.4Detroit Today. “How Do Toys Affect a Child’s Self-Image, View of Society? – WDET 101.9 FM.” WDET 101.9 FM, May 22, 2017. Accessed June 22, 2023. A cycle where constant exposure to cars is pushed onto children from a young age helps explain why over 90% of Americans own a car and 85% of daily trips in America are by car.5The New York Times. “America Has Long Favored Cars over Trains and Buses. Can Biden Change That?” Published 2021. Accessed 2023.; Tilford, Ashlee. “Car Ownership Statistics 2023.” Forbes, March 7, 2023. Accessed June 22, 2023.,-A%20total%20of&text=91.7%25%20of%20households%20had%20at,least%20one%20vehicle%20in%202021. 

Climate change is right on our doorstep, and only through adopting cleaner forms of transportation, can we limit global warming.6Toussaint, Kristin. “Transitioning to Electric Vehicles Isn’t Enough: Public Transit Use Needs to Double.” Fast Company, November 10, 2021. Accessed June 22, 2023. The car culture that we ingrain into our children from an early age has lasting impacts on our world. Thus, we should not only consider solutions like improving accessibility to public transportation, but we should also be conscious of what we expose our children to during their development. 

Perhaps the next time you take your child to the toy store it’s best to skip the Hot Wheels aisle.

Cover Image: Photo by Gimmel Magaway on Unsplash

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