Why safer cars lead to more dangerous roads: The manufacturers are partly to blame. Modern cars divorce the occupants from their environment

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Normal people often turn into complete swine when they drive cars. Just the other day I saw an everyday-looking chap, wife and family on board, sounding his horn in frustration at a woman driver because she was doing 20mph on a 30mph road and delaying him. When he turned off into a side street he was grinning like a schoolboy who had just escaped punishment for performing a dastardly deed.

Would he have been so rude if he had been obstructed by the same woman walking slowly down a narrow lane? Of course not.

Drivers pick their noses, gesticulate obscenely, and swear, acts otherwise performed only rarely in public places. They refuse to extend simple courtesies, such as giving space to those in front during a confluence of lanes.

Queue-jumping in cars is also common. Yet elsewhere in Britain the ability to form an orderly queue is part of the national character. Once inside a car, it seems, people metamorphose into different and altogether less wholesome beings. Age and social class seem to make no difference. And it is getting worse.

I partly blame the car makers. Cars are increasingly designed to be anti-social. Inside, you and your passengers are now cosseted by increasingly luxurious trim, enjoy greater soundproofing (to keep the outside world even more outside) and, more and more, enjoy the benefits of air-conditioning (upshot: you never need to open your window). Modern cars divorce their drivers and their passengers from their environment like never before.

While the car makers are serving up more and more safety features for the benefit of those inside, no thought is given to the safety of outsiders. Drivers increasingly expect air bags to cushion heads in the event of a crash, side-door beams to prevent injury when being T-boned, seatbelts to restrain, anti-lock brakes to prevent skids, radial ply tyres for better grip, and crumple zones to prevent accident shocks being passed on to occupants. These devices are the motoring equivalent of nannies, and like other examples of nannying, they encourage us to behave less responsibly.

Where are the safety features designed to protect outsiders? There are virtually none. What is more, it is quite legal to fit devices that are positively lethal to passers-by. Certain owners of big 'off- roaders', for instance, buy the vehicles partly because they are seen to be safe, thanks to their size. Then, in an act of stupendous selfishness, they fit those dreadful front bull bars, both to make their off-roader look rougher and tougher, and to offer further protection for themselves and their loved ones. Never mind that the bull bars are murderous to any pedestrians or cyclists who may stray in the way.

I have also no doubt that extra safety features on cars encourage us to drive faster, and to foster a 'stuff you' attitude to the outside world. Volvo drivers are notorious for being inconsiderate - ask any motorcyclist. Is it any wonder?

It seems to me that the friendliest, least intimidating drivers tend to be behind the wheel of open-top cars (where they do feel part of the environment) such as Mazda MX-5s or MGs, or in small cars such as Minis, where protection from the outside world is pretty minimal.

Drivers of big cars are usually worse than drivers of small cars, and company-car drivers seem to be more selfish than those of privately owned machines. Not only do company cars tend to be bigger, but, since the driver does not actually own the car, his sense of responsibility is diminished: one reason why company cars tend to be driven faster.

There is every sign that things will get worse. Cars are being loaded with more and more safety kit (next up is likely to be side air bags) and, as they get more goodies, they get bigger and heavier and quieter and more anti-social. Little cars are getting bigger, too. Have you noticed how much smaller the Mini seems now than it did 20 years ago? That is because all other small cars are getting bigger, partly because of safety legislation and partly for marketing reasons, leaving the Mini as the single exemplar of true motoring efficiency.

Even the Mini, 35 years old this month, is likely to die soon, a victim of safety legislation designed purely to protect the driver and passengers, ignoring the welfare of everybody else.

The only modern small car anything like as clever and efficient as the Mini is the Fiat Cinquecento, and that has recently been castigated in the safety-obsessed German motoring press for being less safe in a head-on accident than bigger cars (surprise, surprise).

A racing-driver friend of mine bemoaned the fact some years ago that racing cars, like road cars, are getting safer. I thought it an odd thing to say, and challenged him. 'Racing cars are now so safe that drivers don't think they can die - so they take stupid risks,' he reasoned. 'The innocent drivers are now often the ones who get hurt.'

His solution was to force all racing cars to carry daggers in the steering wheel, pointing at the driver's heart. 'There'd be a massive drop in the number of accidents - I guarantee it.'

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