The destructive liberator A creation that destroys The petrol war's casualties

Like all tyrants, the car demands sacrifices. Geoffrey Lean on a centenary to give us pause Cathedral stunts are the wrong way to mark the cars centenary Geoffrey Lean
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THIS YEAR we should be observing three centenaries of the British car, not just the one celebrated with such pomp and comedy in Coventry Cathedral last week.

It is true, as the assembled dignitaries and motor magnates sought to remind us - when not being rudely interrupted by bodywork rarely seen on the assembly line - that the British car industry began on 17 January 1896, when Daimlers were first made in the Midlands city. But, as the felicitously named "Lady Godiva", Angel Koyanti, might have scrawled on her skin, two equally significant events swiftly followed.

Seven months later, on 17 August, Bridget Driscoll, of Croydon, was knocked down and killed by a vehicle travelling at all of 4mph, thus becoming the first of Britain's 430,000 car fatalities. And on 14 November, Parliament repealed the law restricting cars to that lethal maximum speed and requiring them to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag, thus freeing them from restrictions that had cramped their development and setting them on the road to liberating and enslaving us all.

Before the 19th century most people never journeyed more than 20 miles from their homes unlessthey were pressed into armies or navies, went on pilgrimages or migrated. Now cars carry those that can afford them a total of four trillion miles a year - enough to get to the sun and back 20,000 times.

Automobiles, said Roland Barthes, are "almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals, the supreme creation of an era", appropriated by whole peoples as "purely magical objects". Even now, they are being embraced by Eastern Europeans as symbols of their economic and political liberation. But over much of the world and in most of its cities the liberator, like many successful revolutionaries, is increasingly becoming an oppressor.

Cars have reshaped landscapes and societies, killed millions through accidents and pollution, gobbled up scarce resources and marginalised the poor. And now at Newbury - the scene of two battles in the 1640s, during Britain's greatest constitutional struggle - people are again rising in revolt.

No one would have been more surprised than the early Daimler motor company. In 1901 it predicted that there would never be more than a million cars in the world, because no more people than that would have the skill to drive them. There are now 550 million. Some 145 million are in the United States, nearly eight times as many as in 1950. In Britain - identified by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution as the world's second most car-centred country - car travel has increased ten-fold in the past 40 years, while the railways have stagnated and the use of buses and coaches has declined.

Not all of this is due to the motor's fatal attraction. Governments have consistently discriminated in its favour. Successive US administrations stood by while oil and tyre companies systematically bought up and closed trolley lines in 45 cities. Public transport now carries less than one American commuter in 20, compared to half at the end of the Second World War. Planning and transport policies in Britain, too, have favoured the car.

Yet more cars demand more roads, which attract more cars. In the United States an area the size of Georgia is now under Tarmac. Social customs are being changed as fast as the countryside. Nearly a third of British children aged between seven and 11 are now driven to school, compared to one in 100 a generation ago. They have stopped playing on the pavements, partly because of the danger from traffic. In consequence, a report by the Policy Studies Institute concluded, "children's development into healthy and mature adults is being stunted".

Half of the retail floor spaceopened over the past decade in Britain has been in out-of-town shopping centres.The proportion in the previous 20 years was a seventh. High streets are dying and as the country increasingly moulds itself to the whims of motorists, the one in three households that do not have a car (usually because they cannot afford one) are ever more marginalised.

The car has invaded our personalities. As John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, said last week, "hidden and deep connections make it difficult for people to make rational decisions about cars". It was not surprising, he said, that they were often sold by sex. People grow aggressive behind the wheel: more than 100 shooting and rock-throwing incidents were recorded on California's freeways in a single year.

"The car has become the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man," Marshall McLuhan wrote in the Sixties. "It has become an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad and incomplete in the urban compound."

Two out of every five American men have proposed marriage in a car. It is not recorded how many were conceived in one. (Henry Ford is said to have done his best to keep the numbers down by deliberately making the back seat of the Model T too short to lie on.)

Like all oppressors, the car demands sacrifices. Though road deaths have fallen encouragingly in Britain from their peak 25 years ago, more than 3,500 people are still killed on the roads each year and more than 40,000 are seriously injured. Another 11,000 are authoritatively estimated to die every year from exhaust pollution while the incidence of asthma in small children, aggravated by it, has risen more than six-fold since 1976.

Road traffic is one of the most intractable forces behind global warming - an average car will pump out 35 tons of carbon dioxide over its life. It is the most pervasive and annoying source of noise, largely responsible for half of Britain's homes being subject to levels that exceed World Health Organisation standards, greatly increasing stress. The car consumes prodigious amounts of resources - oil, steel, rubber, aluminium, copper, rock for road surfacing - while Britain's road programme is expected to damage 50 sites of special scientific interest, 10 areas of outstanding natural beauty and five national parks in England and Wales alone.

The liberation received in exchange for all this is diminishing steadily. Traffic moves more slowly in London, Paris, Tokyo and other cities around the world than it did when horses were used. Britons spend the equivalent of five-and-a-half days a year in traffic jams, while congestion costs the United States $40bn a year in lost production.

We are far too dependent on cars to drop them in the foreseeable future (even last week's Lady Godiva returned to her protesters' camp in a car) but we do need to tame them. "This must be the time when we learn to make the motorcar our servant and cease to allow it to be our master," Mr Gummer said. It will be hard.

Cleaning exhausts may be one of the easier tasks. Electric cars could offer some relief to towns and cities, but shift pollution to the chimneys of power stations. In the long term, fuel cells, powered by hydrogen and emitting only water, offer hope. In the short run, the best bet lies in greatly reducing fuel consumption.

Most manufacturers already have models on their drawing boards that will do 100 miles to the gallon, while the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado has designed a "supercar" capable of 280mpg. But car manufacturers, not noted for their good sense (why else would four-fifths of British models have their exhaust pipes on the pavement side of the vehicle?), refuse to make them.

Even if they had a change of heart, the car's other impacts would remain and could worsen if increased fuel economy made motoring cheaper. Britain's solution to congestion - building roads - is discredited. The answers are to limit traffic and revive public transport, and to plan settlements so that they do not depend on cars. Pioneering cities from Zurich and Freiburg in Europe to Curitiba in Brazil have controlled the car, boosted public transport, and become much more pleasant places to live in.

New regulations - an anathema though they may be to the right - will have to be passed to control cars and reduce fuel consumption. Increases in fuel prices will be needed, both to discourage unnecessary driving and to spur innovation. Presently, though, prices are going in the other direction. In the United States, where petrol is a quarter of the price of spring water, motoring is five times cheaper than in 1974.

Here, the Government is increasing fuel taxes by 5 per cent a year. But last week the latest rise was wiped out by the start of an oil company price war. It was, perhaps, a more telling way of marking the centenary of the car than the baring of a body and souls in Coventry Cathedral.