An old cliché says that a car gives freedom. But if freedom means the absence of state intrusion in our personal choices, then that cliché is plain wrong. Drivers are less free than pedestrians or transit passengers. There are three main areas in which driving impairs our freedom. Loosely phrased, they are liberty, privacy, and regulation.
The first area is liberty. Driving is a privilege, not a right. Everybody knows it. That’s why we have driver’s licences. It is a conditional privilege granted and revoked by the state. When you receive this privilege, you consent to greater state intrusion and scrutiny than non-drivers. The police have more powers to stop and detain you, and because so much of people’s lives are in their car—in plain view, the police have more opportunities to engage in a warrantless, plain-view search of your car interior when they stop you. That affects your freedom.
Whenever you are pulled over, you are detained. Detention doesn’t necessarily mean going to jail. If you feel you cannot refuse a police demand that constrains your movement, you are detained. If you are behind the wheel, the police can detain you more easily than if you are walking on the sidewalk. In Ontario, the Highway Traffic Act allows a police officer to stop cars “in the lawful execution of his or her duties and responsibilities” (s. 216(1)). This stop does not require a warrant or reasonable and probable grounds that you committed an offence. The police can stop you to smell your breath (the RIDE program in Ontario) or to see if there are mechanical issues with you car, for example.
There are at least two justifications for this curtailment of freedom on the road. First, the car is inherently dangerous. A lot more Canadians die in traffic accidents than in the most violent armed conflicts Canada is involved in. Second, driving is privilege with conditions, and when you accept it, you give the state the right to verify your compliance with the conditions. Of course, the state’s power to do so is not boundless, but it results in drivers having less freedom than pedestrians or transit riders.
The second area is privacy. Driving sacrifices privacy, and courts held that reasonable privacy expectations in the car are lower than in a home or in a person. When the police stop you, you must identify yourself, which means at least giving your correct name and address. You must also show proof of your driving privileges. But even when you are not stopped by the police, the name and address of the owner of the car you are driving is always apparent to authorities through the licence plate. By the way, bicycle riders have to give at least their name and address if stopped by the police on the street (s. 218(1) of the Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act), and they can be arrested if they refuse. Of course, pedestrians or transit riders do not have these burdens.
The third area of restriction is regulation. When you drive you are subject to much more state regulation than when you walk or ride transit. The complexity and dangerousness of road traffic result in a web of rules of the road, some of which drivers customarily break giving the police a chance to curtail their freedom even more. Take highway speed limits, for example. Most drivers exceed the 100 km/h limit, and the police often ignore it due to enforcement costs or for other reasons. But it means that a great deal of drivers are offenders and subject to sanctions at the most unexpected moment. So not only do drivers have inherently less freedom, they often have even less freedom than they should because they routinely break road rules.
With all this state intrusion, lower privacy, and massive regulation, drivers are less free than pedestrians or transit riders. In fact, sidewalks are true freedom zones where you are free from state interference unless there is an emergency or reasonable and probable grounds that you committed a crime (which is a pretty high bar). And due to distances, a lack of transit, and the resulting reign of the car, small town or suburb residents may very well be less free than big city dwellers, with all other things held equal.