The most dangerous addiction of all: the car

Drivers wear cars like suits of armour, protecting them from all the elements they see as threatening
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Where will it end? Now our dearly beloved English actor, Nigel Havers, has fallen victim to this terrible vendetta. The other day he was fined £30 because his wife has cancer. Well, actually, he was issued with a parking ticket, because he was illegally parked. But he was only illegally parked because his wife - who does have cancer, poor woman - felt sick and needed some air. Such is the callous, robotic zeal of traffic wardens that this excuse did not melt their stony hearts.

The terrible vendetta I refer to is, of course, the war on motorists - those blameless, upstanding citizens who are victimised wherever they go, treated as liars when, like Mr Havers, they're telling the truth, and turned into criminals just so that they can be financially exploited in order to pay for the damage done by the real criminals - the non-drivers, apparently. For in drivers, all of the best of the British character, is encapsulated.

Here is the columnist Lynda Lee-Potter, describing "decent" drivers: "We're the ones who respect authority, obey rules, do our best for the community and pay our taxes. Often we make sacrifices to pay for private health care and education, which takes a huge burden off state education and the NHS." Here is Carol Malone, another commentator: "We're an easy target and a revenue raiser. They do it because we're so busy trying to hold down jobs, raise families and keep a roof over our heads that we don't have the time or the strength to fight back."

And here is a Telegraph leader, singing from that same hymn sheet. "The real point is that most people drive their cars not because they are bad people who delight in pollution, but because they need to do so. They drive to work, to the shops, to pick their children up from school or to visit friends. In that sense, hostility to motorists is ultimately an attack on ordinary people and their values."

What form do these attacks take? Motorists are attacked when they are taxed, when they break the speed limit, when they drive in bus lanes, when they park illegally, when they drive unfit vehicles, untaxed vehicles, or uninsured vehicles, when they drive without due care and attention, when they drive dangerously, when they drive drunkenly and when they kill or main people while driving, to name but a few offences. If this is the defensible behaviour of the nation's moral backbone, then no wonder we all have a sense of slipping standards.

Motorists typically complain that the police, instead of chasing after them, should go after "real criminals" instead. So you'd think they'd welcome the Traffic Management Bill, which is designed to make parking attendants responsible for policing a further 30 traffic offences. But no, this instead is seen as part of the war on motorists, fought by the parking attendants, a body of people Mr Havers describes as "an unpleasant army".

Mr Havers, though, is havering, if he thinks that only motorists are treated in the way he has. The problem he complains of does not lie in the nature of parking attendants or their relationship with motorists. The problem is that in all of our encounters with officialdom it is presumed that we the public cannot be trusted, and sadly for good reason. Poor old parking attendants, on their £6 an hour, "busy trying to hold down jobs, raise families and keep a roof over their heads", can't go around accepting sickness as an excuse for illegal parking, or half of the decent, ordinary drivers in Britain will be pulling that one to get out of their legal obligations.

Drivers are totally illogical. It seems obvious that all of these decent motorists, in protest against their appalling treatment, should attempt to do something radical in order to combat this war against them - like abiding by the laws that govern them, instead of insisting that the crimes motorists commit are "victimless". They are furious that they are not allowed in bus lanes, oblivious to the idea that they too could be part of this enviable, pollution-saving, gridlock avoiding, fast-moving traffic stream if only they got on a bus. They keep banging on about how they should be the judge of whether a road is safe to speed on, even though - despite the huge reduction in accidents that has been experienced under motorist-hating Labour - 3,600 people still die on our roads each year and 40,000 suffer serious injuries.

Yet while motorists do accept, reluctantly, that accidents happen, they are completely in denial about all the other anti-social consequences of their actions. Drivers are in denial about the fact that their cars pollute the air we all breathe, as well as making a huge contribution to global warming. They seem not to notice that cars make the world ugly too - their emissions smear buildings with black rivulets, they line every street with their ugly bulk, they create constant noise and they promote social alienation and ill-health of various kinds.

They entrap our children indoors, watching telly, getting fat, being sedentary, believing that even the shortest journey cannot be undertaken without a car, because, hey, if you're not in a car, you might be hit by one. They keep our streets empty of adults too, all whizzing along in their cars, oblivious of the names or the needs of their neighbours, off to the supermarket, then complaining about how the local shops are dying off.

Motorists are addicted to their cars like smokers are addicted to their fags (and 70 per cent of the population did that too until their denial about its destructive qualities was broken down). The learnt behaviour of motorists - damaging their health, damaging society, damaging the ecosystem, sometimes killing people, sometimes injuring them - is passed on to their children. Among children in a recent survey in Scotland, 88 per cent said their favourite mode of transport was a car, while 4 per cent plumped for their bike. How sad.

Recently, motorists were up in arms about what they saw as another skirmish in the "war against motorists". They were indignant about David Blunkett's suggestion that a surcharge should be made on crimes of various kinds, including speeding offences, and then used to fund various support groups counselling the victims of crime - including the relatives of dead victims of criminal driving.

But motorists argued that they should not have to fund counselling for people who had fallen victim to "real criminals", as if widespread car use were not a factor determining the shape of the society that we have.

The link between car use and crime may not be obvious, but it is a real one all the same. Cars have helped to atomise our society. Those who drive cars wear them like suits of armour, protecting them from all the elements they see as threatening. That is why so many drivers really do equate driving a car with being good and moral, and being outside on the street with being bad and immoral.

The truth, though, is that the streets are dangerous in part because everyone is tucked away in their cars, not giving a monkey's about anyone else as long as they're all right, and resentful of every tiny reminder that this is not actually a brave or moral position. Drivers have got to understand that many of their journeys are undertaken not because there is no alternative, but because they're in the grip of an insidious and nasty addiction. And they must start to understand that it they can't do the fine, they shouldn't do the crime.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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