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Terence Blacker: Why we're all being driven to extremes

Cars may be necessary to everyday life, but they are no longer a force for good

Terence Blacker
Tuesday 19 July 2011 00:00 BST

Have you had a call from a personal travel adviser yet? In some parts of the country, they are knocking on doors and offering tips on responsible travel. It is a government initiative, financed by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, and its aim is to encourage more of us to leave the car at home when we shop, or go to work.

The scheme has drawn a predictable blast of amused contempt from traditionalists in the media who have huffed and puffed about the nanny state, and the cost to the public purse. The Taxpayers' Alliance, an ever-reliable source of why-oh-why soundbites on these occasions, has described such campaigns as "silly... They don't address the real issues facing commuters or packed trains."

As is so often the case when there are attempts by central government to change the way we consume and waste, the criticism is wide of the mark and the idea, modest as it is, rather sensible. It recognises, albeit in a tentative manner, that worrying about the environment and investing in expensive renewable energy schemes are all very well, but are largely meaningless while we remain deeply and unapologetically in thrall to the car.

It is not just that unnecessary driving by millions of us every day is an obvious waste of fossil fuel. There is now something about the automobile which seems to bring brings out the worst in our natures. We are more arrogant and selfish when behind a steering-wheel; other people, beyond the screen, mean less to us than if we were among them. Enclosed in the solid interior of our car, with its familiar smell and seat position and sounds, we lose what little patience and empathy we ever had with the outside world. It is both a refuge and a fighting vehicle, taking on the enemy. When that car door slams behind us, the Big Society no longer exists.

It may take a while to get used to the idea that car culture is now somewhat toxic. It has had a good run, first as the focus of great rock songs from Chuck Berry, Ry Cooder or Bruce Springsteen, and as the star of Hollywood road movies. It has even, thanks to JG Ballard, had its moment of perverse eroticism.

Now, though, it is doing us harm. The briefest glance at an episode of Top Gear tells you more than enough about the grim effect on character and wit that modern car-addiction can have. It represents and excuses a sort of cosseted arrogance, a love of size and power, a bleary contempt for those with smaller engines or even, unthinkably, no engines at all.

Away from the TV studio, the way driving influences human behaviour is even less amusing, as Aberystwyth has been discovering this summer. Six weeks ago, the town lost its three traffic wardens. "We thought," the head of local highways told the Sunday Telegraph, "that at the very least this would be an interesting experiment, and there would be a good chance of the town showing what it could do."

It did. Unregulated, the drivers of Aberystwyth have ignored yellow lines, blocked entrances, grabbed spaces for the disabled, crashed into shops, abused those trying to make deliveries and fought with one another.

Here, not around some freeway in Los Angeles, is the true Carmageddon. In the words of the chairman of the local chamber of commerce, the town has been "spiralling towards a kind of Lord of the Flies state of anarchy where no one gives a stuff for anyone."

Perhaps it is time to start thinking about cars rather differently. They may be necessary to everyday life, but they are no longer a force for good. Door-to-door personal travel advisers can play a small role in changing attitudes, but in the end social pressure will be the thing. One day perhaps, the car culture will loosen its grip, and burning around the roads in a Clarksonesque manner will be considered self-indulgent and slightly silly.

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