Deborah Orr: Insulated from the world they pass through, drivers fail to realise the damage they do

Even the kindest driver simply will not believe that it's just as easy to take the bus
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The British media took a day off this week from its perpetual war against iniquitous speed cameras, tortuous traffic bumps, and the general maligning of busy people in their nippy vehicles, and decided that among the nation's hard-pressed, exploited, innocent drivers, there was one guilty man.

Jaswinder Singh, 45, was sentenced this week to 18 months imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving. More or less all concerned - the family of his victim, the police, and campaigning groups - agree that the sentence is disgracefully short. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn't. But actually, this person's sentence for dangerous driving, or anyone else's, is almost beside the point.

The point is that the judge, in his sentencing, approached the matter not as an upholder of the law, but as a driver. "It was dusk," he said in mitigation of Singh, "and there were branches hanging over the road." Clearly, the judge had put himself in Singh's place, and decided that he too, were he driving in such "difficult" circumstances, might have mown someone down.

Would a driver have been able to identify with some of the other problems that Singh grappled with? Like the fact that these difficult circumstances happened on a pedestrian crossing. Probably, judging from the irritation and impatience with which most drivers approach such inconvenient road-fords. Many drivers would do anything to "win" against a cheeky pedestrian, even risking clipping those who attempt to rush across the road when the green man has retired. What's their problem, those jaywalking fools? If they're in a hurry, they should be in a car. That's where the busy people are.

Would a driver have been able to identify with the fact that Singh, despite these difficult circumstances, was at least 10 miles over the speed limit? I suggest that he might. Nearly all drivers, after all, seem to be agreed that except in very unusual circumstances, they should really be allowed to decide for themselves what speed they travel at. Any attempts to monitor and control their behaviour are considered a money-grubbing insult to their rights as a citizen.

Would a driver have been able to identify with the fact that Singh was driving without insurance? Perhaps. Most drivers, after all, are horrified by the huge expense of their insurance, which is another example of the way in which the world is always looking to exploit the poor innocent motorist. They often pop into the cars of friends, uninsured, with fingers crossed that on a short journey they won't be caught. Maybe, if they were living on the breadline, as was Singh, they'd be tempted to take the risk on a more open-ended basis. Plenty of people do.

Maybe, were a driver able to understand what would make a hard-up chap drive around without insurance, he might understand, too, the fears that compelled Singh simply to drive off when he had flung a young woman's body 30 yards down a road. Clearly Singh panicked. Why wouldn't he? We're constantly told, after all, that a car is a necessity. Singh, no doubt, was thinking of nothing except the awful prospect of being banned from driving. He, like many others who hit and run, was focused first and foremost on avoiding such inconvenience and ignominy.

Because, like a lot of drivers. he'd been there before. A serial offender, Singh had only been back on the road for six months, after a ban for drink-driving, when he slammed into his victim. Contemptible? Maybe. Except that those drivers labouring under a drink-driving ban are usually treated by their peers with utter sympathy. There are few drinking drivers who have never - though they know their limits and they know they're okay to drive - taken the risk that they too would fail a breathalyser.

Therefore, given that Singh knew only too well the awfulness of the punishment that awaited him, did he not show himself to be something of a knight of the road, in an odd kind of way? Singh could have got clean away. He had hidden the car and no one was on his track. But he gave himself up, out of guilt and regret, shamed by the photographs of his victim's dead body that her mother released, deliberately, to see if it would prick a conscience. Singh wept in court. The judge accepted that he had shown genuine remorse and was not callous.

Perhaps, to a driver, this does seem like an unusually high level of empathy, this ability to regret that as a result of your long list of misdemeanours, a young life has been ended. Certainly the law does not suggest in the least that once a person has killed someone on the road, he might be looking at undergoing the ultimate sacrifice, and never driving again. Singh himself has been banned for only four years. Frankly, I think that even relatively minor infringements of traffic law should result in lifelong bans. It would get some cars off the road, which would be a very good thing.

Because it isn't just the environmental degradation, the danger and the ugliness of cars that is so frightening. It is the psychological effect cars seem to have on those in their thrall. People are so dependent on their cars that they cannot imagine how non-drivers live. They sprint around in their mad little rooms-on-wheels, often alone, like snails on crystal-meth, afraid of exposing their soft, vulnerable bodies to the big bad world.

Yet drivers do more than anybody to make the world so dangerous. That's why they now are so in love with their four-wheel drives. "They are safe," drivers say, "I want to keep my family safe." They are not safe at all, these vehicles, unless you are the person inside them. If you are outside them, it is much more dangerous. But that's the typical driver's mindset, always judging the world from the driver's seat and not from the roadside.

Drivers are told all the time that they are martyrs - that the laws surrounding their car use, the criticism made of their choices, the difficulties they have with almost every aspect of ownership, are all because of some vast anti-car conspiracy designed to fleece them, endanger them and spoil their fun.

But if they were to think about it, they would see that they are not some oppressed minority. Instead they are the vast majority, for whom the world is made and remade. Drivers are not bad people, but they are deeply dependent and worryingly addicted. Trying to explain even to the kindest and most generous drivers - in fact especially to them - that it's just as easy to take the bus is an impossible task. They simply don't believe you.

It is this attitude that lies at the very root of the judicial system's seeming inability to regulate drivers. Only when a loved one is lost, or damaged, do most people stop sympathising with drivers and start sympathising with victims. The judge in Jaswinder Singh's case made this mistake. But in making it, he's merely one of millions who do it every day.