January 09, 2004 | Peter

Life in the Fast Lane

The Christmas road toll was one of the worst in years. I have commented before about how glibly we accept this price for automotive mobility, especially as it tends to kill and maim a disproportionate number of young people. Apparently the long-term trend is less bad accidents, due mainly to improvements in automobile design, but there are some other worrying trends.
Frankly, I’m always amazed there are not more accidents when I see the things people do on the roads. This is especially true in the country where bad roads and high speed become much more important factors. And the all too common sight of roadkill reminds me that it is not just humans that pay the price for careless and reckless driving.
One trend that does bother me is the growing number of people who drive with genuine aggression, as if any constraint on their intentions to get where they are going as fast as possible is a personal affront. Young males are still the worst examples, but it is an increasing attitude across age, gender and class that leads to more accidents and worse nerves.
Technology is complicating things. Faster cars give some drivers the capacity to drive aggressively, alternately tailgating and then braking hard, giving other drivers little leeway for safety. And mobile phones have added that element of extra danger as drivers concentrate on their calls and not the road.
I think much of this aggressive attitude is a spin off from the selfish individualism that has accompanied the rise of globalisation and its economic rationalist ideology. This metaparadigm says that virtually all social institutions – with their values of mutual consideration and compromise – are redundant and old fashioned, and all that counts is the individual acting in the market place through access to capital. You succeed or fail – no in-betweens – through your own efforts, and the only criteria for success or failure is accumulation of money. The T-shirt slogan that says “The one who dies with the most money wins” sums it up.
Cars, of course, are perhaps the second most important expression of personal wealth and self esteem. Indeed, because we travel about in them they are perhaps even more important than our houses in terms of public image. And we can see by the way people pay extraordinary amounts of money for vehicles with only marginal benefits over standard ones that some people take all this very seriously indeed. So they get in their fast cars with their mobile phones and they don’t want to be distracted from their own immediate purpose.
In the US there has been a sustained debate about SUVs (4WDs to us) as embodying this new individualistic attitude on the road. The top selling model in the US now is a pickup truck. They are of course environmental disasters, especially as regards petrol consumption: the case has been made that ultimately Iraq was invaded because Americans want to drive SUVs (look no further than that famous Hummer driver, the new Governor of California).
Unfortunately for these hyper-individualists there are fairly strict road rules, enforced by relatively incorruptible police. So, not withstanding the road toll, mostly the result of these drivers’ actions is general bad nerves.
This new individualistic aggression is even more apparent on footpaths cum cycle-paths where the rules are much less clear. Pedestrians stroll along thoughtless of the needs of cyclists and cyclists whiz past pedestrians and slower cyclists, refusing to slow down no matter what. If there is a rule about dangerous cyclists it is probably to watch out for the ones with the most expensive gear.
Living near the Swan River, I use the riverside paths as a pedestrian, jogger and cyclist on a daily basis. It is a genuinely scenic environment. But I increasingly keep to the grass to avoid the other users who seem less and less willing to show any consideration for others. I have witnessed joggers deliberately running into walkers to make a point and countless accidents and near accidents as walkers, joggers, roller-bladers and cyclists assert their right to behave as if no one else existed.
A few years ago two cyclists slammed into each other head-on going around a bend on the riverfront. Both were taken to hospital and it was a major news story. There was an outcry about safety and the relevant council spent thousands of dollars of ratepayers’ money on painting lines and arrows and putting up signs. But the fact was that one of the cyclists, or perhaps both, had been asserting their presumed right to behave as if no one else mattered. There was no other way the collision could have occurred. Just a little common sense – which is ultimately what consideration for others comes down to – would have been enough to avoid that particular ‘accident’.
This increased aggression is of course partly a function of increased population density, but this material reality of more people should only make us more aware of the need to watch out for others. It is clear to me that we are in fact heading the other way: that if there are no serious legal sanctions – and even then if you are a wealthy ‘winner’, you just pay the fines – the only rule is survival of the fastest.

Posted by Peter at 11:41 am | Comments Off on Life in the Fast Lane |
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