Well, the good news for romantics is that much of this spirit endures. The bad news is that there are now tens of millions of would-be James Deans out there. They still keep one of their hands (loosely) on the steering wheel; but the other now holds a can of Coke, or more likely a magnum of coffee or a mobile phone. Their cars are twice or three times the size of Dean's and they drive them just as fast.
In recent weeks, the dangers of America's roads - or its drivers - have been highlighted by a spate of especially nasty accidents. George Jones, the country and western singer was critically injured in an accident that was a classic for the Nineties. He swerved into a bridge while using his mobile phone and, like 40 per cent of American drivers, he was not strapped in. A bottle of vodka was found under his seat, but he had not, apparently, partaken. He has now been discharged from hospital.
In Illinois, 11 people died when the train they were in struck a lorry laden with steel girders on a level crossing. First indications are that the lorry driver tried to cheat the crossing by zig-zagging between the half-barriers that descend on either side. Even if that driver - who had a suspended licence and a record of convictions - was not at fault, local contributors to the anti-trucking websites that mushroomed in the wake of the accident affirmed that drivers regularly tried to beat this crossing - and many others - in the same way.
Then last week in Wisconsin, a minibus with 16 people on board overturned, killing seven of the occupants and leaving another seven seriously injured. The 21-year-old driver was speeding and, it later emerged, under a driving ban. When he realised that the police were tailing him, he apparently tried - wait for it - to change places with a passenger, and the minibus span out of control.
Such brazen examples of driving that not only flouts the law, but defies a basic instinct for survival, may seem extraordinary. But they are merely a distillation of the sort of casual recklessness that you witness every day.
One insurance company ran a television advertisement showing scenes from motorway life: as well as drivers engaged in animated telephone conversations, there was the one putting on her make-up, another reaching for his giant coffee, yet another struggling gamely with a hamburger (ketchup, pickles and fries). The voiceover noted that these incidents, while staged for the commercial, were taken from police reports.
I do not doubt it. All my recent experience of driving in America, urban and rural, confirms all that, and more. Travelling on a bus in the snowy Mid-West recently I counted only a minority of drivers wearing seat-belts; a majority of children sat (or wriggled) unrestrained in front seats, only a small number were in the back, or in child seats. Waiting to cross a busy junction in the Iowa capital, Des Moines, at rush hour, I counted the number of drivers using mobile phones. It proved simpler to count the ones who were not: four, out of maybe two dozen.
There is talk of making it an offence to use a phone while driving. But if the law was enforced, there would be a citizens' revolt. Chatting on the hand-held cellphone has already joined the myriad of other in-car distractions that make it so hard for American drivers to indicate before they pull out or change lane (what lane?) and then cause them to brake or accelerate abruptly for no apparent reason, block an intersection, steam straight from the slip road on to a motorway without giving way, and run a red light.
When, this past weekend, Virginia police staged a speed blitz on Interstate 95 - the main east coast trunk route - only a few drivers grudgingly conceded that this notoriously dangerous road might have been temporarily rendered a little safer. Most were irritated that their journey would take more time. Driving without due care and attention (and with scant respect for the rules) has become an American state of mind. James Dean is dead: Drive on James Dean.Reuse content