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Cars reveal us for what we are

We wouldn’t find Mr Bean so funny if he actually shared the road with us.

Except in America, the state goes to considerable lengths to keep weapons under control – particularly those of mass destruction. It fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to that end. Yet each of us is weaponised in a user-friendly way that cannot be controlled.

The moment we slam the door shut on half a ton of metal and hurtle off at who-knows-what breakneck speed, we are weaponised to an extraordinary degree. Never was this more dramatically rammed home than at Nice last year when over eighty people were crushed to death and untold numbers of others crippled and scarred for life.

Suddenly both we, and our enemies, realised that all around us were ready means of destruction on a massive scale. Worse was the knowledge that the state was powerless in the situation and that you didn’t need bomb factories, ingredients and planning, all of which it did have a chance of monitoring. You simply could step out one morning and kill a hundred people if your vehicle was sufficiently beefy. It was a terrifying realisation.

The car has been a hugely liberating and empowering development in the human story. Up to the eighteenth century, people rarely travelled more than eight miles from the place they were born. Suddenly, their territory was covered in asphalted roads which enabled them to reach the furthest corner of their homeland in incredible time. Journeys of weeks were reduced to hours. Moreover, those freezing weeks of bone-shaking boredom in horse-drawn carriage on rutted, unmade roads were now reduced to hours of warmth and comfort in which people didn’t need to listen to the inane witterings of strangers. Within a short time, we could enrich the airwaves with the finest music our species has created or hear the intelligent musings of the more articulate and entertaining of our people.

Nothing, I suggest, of all the wondrous technological achievements of recent times, including television and the Internet, has been embraced with such enthusiasm. It does, however – as most things do – have a downside. It is partly responsible, I feel, for our failure to engage with our neighbours. Where once our walk to work or the shops brought us into contact, we now take five paces out from our front door into the car and race off. Another downside, which has taken us a hundred years to experience, is that in the hands of a sick fanatic a vehicle can be as devastating as a machine gun. Yet another, and one to which we blissfully give insufficient thought, is that among the myriad things we humans get up to – and in this I include adrenaline sports – nothing puts us at greater risk of killing ourselves. Those same said comforts lull us into a false sense of security. Our constant search for ergonomic improvements has led to ever quieter engines which, when combined with superior suspension systems, can find the car having magicked its speed up to 100 mph with us barely noticing. Not only does this ‘improvement’ bring greater danger to ourselves, but to pedestrians as well. The virtually noiseless electric car is already upon us.

It is a rare person who regards himself as being anything other than a good, safe driver. Most of us regard our skills to be greater than they are. Next to our home and, much more so than our workplace, the car excels as our number two comfort zone. That very factor should give us pause for thought. You are much more at risk of complacency when you’re relaxed in your comfort zone.

We set out each day confident in the belief that our skills will protect us and steadfastly imagine that our safety is almost wholly in our own hands. This, however, completely misses the elephant in the room. Our safety is actually in the hands of strangers. Every time we embark on a journey we rely utterly on every other driver to do the right thing. Hundreds – or even thousands on a long journey – of other drivers whiz by us; if just one of them makes a misjudgement or is distracted, particularly on a bend, we become another statistic – one of over 5,000 who die annually on our roads.

It is a sobering thought that while so many of us are scared of flying, we are many, many thousands of times more likely to die in your nice, comfortable runabout. Just as astonishing is the blind faith we place in strangers to ensure that this does not happen. But having said all this, and despite these undoubtedly serious caveats, the car remains a wonderful thing.

Getting around was once the preserve of the rich: those who had a horse. It stayed that way during the early years of motoring. Then along came Henry Ford with his Model T and the masses joined in the fun. Even a Caesar would have envied what was now available to the least of what would have been his subjects.

Crazy, over-confident drivers are not the only people we should fear on the road. There are those afraid of their own shadow. While we have gained protection to a degree by applying tests both to ourselves and our vehicles, we cannot shield ourselves from the motorist who insists on driving super-cautiously, often well below the permitted speed limit. He or she can so drive fellow motorists up the wall that even the most forgiving can do the unthinkable and precipitate an accident. Nonchalantly blind to the stress levels building up in the queue stretching away to their rear, the slow-coach Sunday driver is a true menace. But hope is on the horizon. Within a generation, most of our journeys will be driverless. Even the slow-coach will have been speeded up. Fatalities on the road will plummet. That should be welcome news to all of us, but think how that prospect will cheer the Greeks and, indeed, all the nations with horrendously worse records than our own. Worldwide, over a decade, millions will live to see old age.

It is often difficult to know what sort of person an individual is. But here again this chariot of the common man excels. Spend half an hour behind anyone, especially in an urban area, and you will have many of the answers which even daily concourse can fail to provide. The way we drive reveals so much about ourselves. Cars expose our true selves in a way so few activities can. They expose show-offs, bullies and chancers. They show whether you’re considerate and polite or, God forbid, indecisive like that slowcoach. And what about the personalised number plate man (as he almost always is a man)? Unthinkingly, he reveals to the world that he’s a narcissist, a man in love with himself.  Life is a cabaret and people are supremely adept at hiding their true personality. But put them in charge of a car and all will be revealed, for better or worse.

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Trust the evidence: flying is safe

One of the worst aspects of this terrible tragedy is that the grieving families of Flight 9525 passengers have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

One of the worst aspects of the recent Alps tragedy is that the grieving families of passengers have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

We have all been shocked to the core at the terrible tragedy which unfolded last week in the French Alps. It is the stuff of nightmares: a deranged madman propelling us forward to an inevitable and horrible death. While millions place their lives regularly in the hands of the airlines, a surprising number do so with the utmost reluctance. The reason they do so is that they recognise it is the only practical way of getting to distant, exotic places and that the urge manages to override their fears.

We heed, as best we can, the mass of statistical evidence which says that flying is safe. As I write, 9,000 passenger aircraft are in the skies of the world carrying a population the size of Manchester. All will arrive safely. When 9/11 struck and the order went out to ground all aircraft, private as well as civil, 5,000 aircraft were in the skies of North America.

The loss of two Malaysian aircraft, and this recent German one in what seems like quick succession, has evoked all our ancient, primeval fears of doing such unnatural things as soaring high in the sky. ‘That’s for the birds,’ we think. Evolution, after all, has hardwired us to fear heights as a terrestrial animal, and it takes a supreme effort of will to set such fears aside. I am myself full of irrational fears and contradictions. What do you make of a man who flew his own hang glider yet is anxious about trusting his lot to an airline pilot? The pilot’s machine is infinitely safer and better maintained, and his skills in the air immeasurable better, yet still I preferred to rely on myself.

We have come a long way since those first spluttering engines of World War One with their rickety airframes and fresh air environment. They were the true heroes of flying, not us. Accident by accident over these hundred years, we have investigated the causes of failures. And modification by modification, aircraft have been brought to the point where almost nothing remains to be discovered.

The machines we put into the air today are almost as safe as the birds which evolution perfected. In fact it is possible to argue that in some important respects they are safer. Birds regularly fall out of the sky with heart or other physiological failures. On long migrations, they fail through weariness or failure to anticipate the weather. Sometimes they fail to gain the height necessary to carry them over mountain ranges. Planes almost never fail on any of these counts. Moreover, aircraft are able to fly over 13 times the speed of the fastest birds, which, as it happens, nest on the cliffs of Cornwall. Even as long ago as World War Two we were well on our way. Look how many shot-up bombers were still able to limp home, so much were their aircrafts miracles of engineering.

It is a fact that if we are to fear anything today it is ourselves. By far the majority of accidents are human error. Electrical, structural, mechanical and computer, they are all a lot sounder than the frailty of human nature. We have pretty well guaranteed physical soundness, but this recent tragedy in the Alps has highlighted how far we are from understanding the vagaries of the mind.

Few air disasters have been more shocking than this one. When Pan American airlines was blown from the skies over Lockerbie, disaster came like a thief in the night but with no suffering. Death, or at least unconsciousness, was instant. The same is true of the recent Ukrainian tragedy. What unfolded over the Alps were minutes of utmost terror and a final few seconds of unimaginable horror.

This nightmarish scenario was compounded at ground level. When the bodies at Lockerbie and Ukraine fell from their destroyed aircraft, they travelled to earth at terminal velocity of a falling object (120 mph) and for the most part, remained intact. When the poor souls of Germanwings Flight 9525 impacted the ground, they did so at 330 mph and were shattered on impact. Even the metallic parts of the aircraft suffered a similar fate. It was next to impossible for a visitor to the scene to know that this mass of debris had once been an aircraft. A mountain of unidentifiable, desiccated body parts were scattered over a square mile of mountainside. Consequently, one of the worst aspects of this terrible tragedy is that the grieving families have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

Lufthansa will have much to answer for when the final reckoning takes place. It appears their vetting system was so inadequate that it allowed an individual with a long history of mental instability to slip the net and fly their aircraft.

While we all place great importance on patient confidentiality, it appears the Germans are almost paranoiac about it. This, where certain occupations are concerned, will have to change as I believe it will worldwide. A duty needs to be placed on all doctors, which has the force of law, requiring them to inform a patient’s employer the moment they believe their patient unfit to fly an aircraft. The same should apply to train and coach drivers.

At some point in the not too distant future, we are going to have to accept that ground control will get you to your destination and back, as it has long done on far more complicated missions into space. Already our drones daily take off, complete their missions and return safely to earth. Once again, it is an irrational, primitive belief that only a man up front can be given ultimate responsibility. When we have grown used to safely journeying in our cars by automated, driverless systems – which is coming sooner than we think – then we may start to believe that the same technology can be applied to the air. Such systems are already feasible in our towns and cities and will soon be trialled here in the UK. It is only human irrationality which is slowing the process. When accidents and fatalities are seen to have been driven down close to zero with machines in control, then perhaps we may summon up the courage to trust the machine more than the man.

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