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.