Sunday, July 17, 2005

a demented diatribe on motorphilia

on a badness scale of one to ten, with the late Mother Teresa at one end and the never-late Jeremy Clarkson at the other, cars should register at around nine-point-nine-nine.

virtuousness is always relative, of course, and some cars are badder than others, but between the outright unrepentant Pol Potty evil of the urban SUV and the honk-honk twee naughty of Noddy's Little Red and Yellow Car lie the barest split hairs of real moral distinction. they are an atrociously expensive, time-consuming, planet-despoiling blight, less useful in real terms than the inglenook, and arguably less effective as a status symbol. actually, both as status symbol and as functional object – as a means, that is, of travelling from A to B in the least possible time and with the least amount of stress - they compare very poorly with the yak, which has the decisive advantage of manuring the fields it plods across.

and yet we do love them so. from their cute little 'bleeps' as we unlock them to the hilarious polyphonic wailings of their alarms which the barest kiss of a dawn breeze seems able to trigger. and they do – let’s admit it - save us having to sit next to smelly people on buses or in the tube. plus they are a neat ritual weapon - good for getting our own back on people who’ve cut us up by catching up with them and riding an inch from their tail. oh – let’s be honest – cars are also a really cool real weapon - a finely-tuned lethal weapon - Vorsprung durch Technik – despatching an estimated 1.2 million humans throughout the world annually, according to the recent World Health Organization/World Bank report, ‘The Global Burden of Disease’. this report, incidentally, predicts that road traffic injuries are expected to take third place in the rank order of disease burden by the year 2020.

third place! (‘War’ only manages a paltry eighth.) killer-cars are outranked only by heart disease and – wait for it – Unipolar Major Depression (or terminal moping-about).

so how is it that cars kill people?

well, they don't do it by themselves, that's for sure! (cute giggle.) stationary and inactivated, they're no more dangerous than any other lump of inert matter. so what transforms them, once that ignition key has been turned and they've been eased out into the road, into such dangerous objects? (rhetorical question - I'm not here to insult your intelligence - this isn't a Jeremy Clarkson rant.) whatever it is, these mysterious transformative powers extend to the drivers as well: that person who tried to kill you on the Junction 23 sliproad is more likely than not a model citizen with badges for kindness to strangers and gentleness to babies and animals in real, ie non-motorised life. this inelegant symbiosis of car and driver seems only to require the most basic urges of aggressive competition to be activated. occupation of the driver's seat serves, de facto, as a liberation from the more inconvenient social requirements of restraint and cooperation and, even, the law itself.

so, given that humans operating them with undue care and attention and at ludicrously unsafe speeds are to blame for all this, and that there are legal checks in place to counteract this behaviour, such as speed cameras, what's the problem? why does the carnage continue, and why is it projected to continue, unabated, to such a patently unacceptable level within the next fifteen years?

in a word, because there are very powerful lobbies at work to ensure, not that it does continue, but that if it does it's everybody else's fault - the government, the local council, the police, the tooth fairy - than either the car manufacturers, the oil suppliers, the go-faster-stripe dealers, or anyone else who contributes either directly or indirectly to this lunatic car-loving culture we have come to inhabit. and how is it that the so-called independent motoring organisations (which are about as independent from the road transport lobby as Hallmark is from Christmas) are so successful in diverting the fundamental blame for the continuing motoring massacres from the drivers to the government, the local councils ... etc? because (again this is really rhetorical, but let's risk insulting Jeremy here) their sine qua non is The Happy Motorist, a creature as mythical as The Green Man, who inhabits a world of empty country roads unmarked by anything more threatening than the flickering shadows of the trees he or she drives past (remember all those ludicrous stories about the epilepsy-inducing lines of plane trees on French B-roads to further justify the local authorities' hacking them all down because so many drunks were driving into them) at speeds which he or she deems 'sensible.'

the real world, alas, is this far away from gridlock most of the time, and inhabited, clearly, by more psychopaths than you'd care to shake a stick at (well, maybe not - best not to provoke them too much), who consider themselves so elevated above any laws that they can with impunity flaunt any and all speed restrictions and feel justified in threatening anyone who gets in their way (ie everyone in front of them) with inches-close encounters of the tailgating kind - at speeds which could only be described as 'sensible' by an F-16 pilot.

this insistence by the raving motorphiliac lobby that most drivers are able to recognise what a sensible speed is and will adapt to different road conditions according to the various factors of visibility, weather, and personal skill and experience is just so much specious nonsense - patent nonsense - arrogant nonsense - and potentially (and actually) lethal nonsense. the argument that roads liberated from speed restrictions would somehow be safer roads is just so dumb it's flat earth, and yet this is what the motoring liberationists are seriously trying to propose. in the face of the overwhelming evidence that speed restrictions and their enforcement through speed cameras save lives, they want to lift them because they're an infringement of their civil liberties?! pull the other one! arresting people and holding them without charge or trial on suspicion of their being involved in criminal activity is an infringement of civil liberty. the introduction of an ID card with a chip capable of tracing your movements through a GSP link is an infringement of civil liberty. photographing your driving too fast and fining you for it is not an infringement of civil liberty.

the citizens of Nowhere Land are beholden to no-one, restricted by nothing, and as free to do whatever they fancy as any other citizen of a fantasy community. in the actual world, citizens are obliged to accept certain responsibilities in proportion to the degree of their participation in society. in this world, 'participation' includes the use of the superstructures and infrastructures of the available transportation systems. our reciprocal responsibility, therefore, is to use these in a manner which, at best, gives due consideration to the other users of those systems, and, at least, does them no harm.

using the roads is one of those social events over which we have only very limited control. the act of driving along a road is one of the few truly universal social levellers. roads have to be shared with a random selection of people, many of whom we'd go to considerable lengths to avoid encountering in 'normal' life. this is one of the reasons why so much design emphasis is placed on making the internal environment of a car so comfortably insulated from the external. our cars have become (or have become to be perceived as) armoured mobile extensions of our homes - in many cases, even more comfortable versions of our real homes. for many of us, the most comfortable seat we ever sit in is the driver's seat of our car. and how many of us live in homes that are air-conditioned? and sound-proofed? with tinted windows? and surrounded by cool glowing dials and multiple control surfaces?

such is the ubiquity of this myth of invulnerability that anyone who dares to challenge it is demonised by the motorphiliac mafia (of which Mr Clarkson must be considered at least a don, if not a godfather) as, at best, a killjoy, and at worst as some kind of political subversive. the car is the dominant global fetish, arguably a religious fetish akin to the St Christopher that dangles from the more superstitious rearview mirrors, in the most literal sense that its primary function as an extension of the personality of its driver predicates on a set of superstitions and beliefs that no amount of rational discourse is able to displace. the imagistic juxtaposition of the tangle of blood-stained metal in the latest motorway massacre pics on the news with the slick state of the art persuasions of the car adverts in the commercial break becomes as meaningless as any other in the lexicon of the commodification of everything. there is simply no recognition of a causal relationship between the two. the one doesn't exist in the same world as the other.

there's only one way to break this morbid obsession, and that's by exposing the bottom line.

the cost (in hard cash - the human life factor is clearly non-factorable) of restoring that annual megatonnage of motor-mangled human flesh and bone to something resembling functionality must be absolutely astronomical. in direct, hands-on medical intervention and rehabilitation terms high enough, but then when you add on the loss of skills, productivity, and all those little things that make a working human so valuable to the economy, it must send the gross through the roof. if someone were to calculate the actual figure, add on an underwriters percentage, and then feed it back to the motorist as a percentage of his or her annual insurance premiums, there might be the stirrings of a recognition that, not only is he or she being exposed to the most appalling injuries as a direct result of his or her love affair with the car, but that he or she is paying right royally for the privilege of treating everyone else, even if he or she never gets injured.

my personal pipedream is that sanity finally prevails, the motoring industry concedes that their relationship with the roadkill is no different than that between the arms industry and the battlefield, and cars are begun to be developed that make us feel less, not more secure with the speed at which they can travel. if our Beamers and Mercs were modelled more on Trabbies, made out of corrugated cardboard and coming with a top-limit two bhp engine with no more torque than a salad-spinner, we'd start thinking twice about cutting up those losers trying to overtake that convoy of grannies in electric wheelchairs on the bypass.

sooner rather than later, despite everything the government's ass-licking response to the road users lobby implements to forestall the inevitable, the country is going to lock solid into one endlessly revolving mass of traffic, and long before that happens, we're going to have to learn to drive as if we were connected carriages in a train - once you've managed to join the stream, you stay where you are - because any attempt to overtake will be as impossible as it will be pointless. this is already an all-too recognisable scenario for anyone using, say, the M25 on a regular basis, or using any of the motorway system south of Bristol during a Bank Holiday weekend.

long before then, I hope that they'll stop painting speed cameras a gaudy yellow and publishing maps of where exactly they're located, and institute a guerilla campaign of camouflaging them and moving them about randomly and secretly. and enough of this discreetly flash-photographing offenders and fining them. each camera should be equipped with a metal-piercing harpoon that decelerates the bastards from sixty to zero in 0.4 seconds flat. that'd teach 'em. they could keep the photograph printed on a T-shirt with a choice of two amusing legends: 'I survived 10g in a random airbag test' or 'my other car's in the wash'.

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