I had always been obsessed with cars. To me, cars represented freedom, engineering excellence, modernity, technological brilliance, speed, fun and excitement.
I still love cars but not like I used to. Now, I grieve for them. I grieve for what they promised me but cannot deliver. Why? Because these days, driving a car is sadly neither exciting nor liberating. More frequently it is mundane, unproductive and frustrating. Worse, it is deadly.
Accepting the dangers
Around the world, traffic injuries claim 1.2 million lives every year and injure up to 50 million more – and rising. We no longer accept death from food poisoning, medical procedures, infectious disease, assault, or workplace accidents. Trauma created by cars, however, remains largely tolerable.
In Australia, 20 people are still killed every week on public roads. If 20 people died in Australian cinemas every week, how many of us would go to the movies? Would we not demand a better system for watching films?
Private cars are rapidly gaining precedence in developing countries such as India, China, Indonesia and Vietnam. As these countries follow their developmental right-of-passage to the freeway, road trauma is projected to become the fifth greatest cause of death and disability worldwide by 2030.
The video below provides some truly shocking examples of accidents, which will leave you scratching your head as to how such a situation has possibly been allowed to occur.
In a cruel irony, numerous studies from across the world clearly show that as cars increasingly dominate, people inside cars become safer while people outside cars (generally the poorest, youngest, and most disadvantaged groups in society) face even greater risk. 27% of the world’s road fatalities are among cyclists and pedestrians killed or injured by someone driving a car.
So why do we keep pushing cars to the centre of transport policy?
In Australia alone, the auto industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising each year convincing us that cars are fantastic. I agree that as individual pieces of machinery they certainly are. They are brilliant, shiny, beautiful machines, designed to move you incredibly quickly, in comfort, while impressing other people along the way. To function optimally, though, they rely on the presence of a perfect system – one that chiefly does not contain humans or other resemblance of reality either here or overseas.
Beyond never represented alongside deaths and injuries, consider some perhaps more benign examples apparently common to the thriving world of advertised cars but particularly uncommon to everyday life:
- In the world of advertised cars, full car parks don’t exist. You never need to drive around the block five times or park 500 metres up the road, in the rain.
- Advertised cars are never shown driving alongside melting glaciers or through freak storms. Despite this, cars produce around one-fifth of our entire greenhouse gas emissions.
- Over half of non-work trips taken by drivers are to destinations that are less than 5 kilometres away. Advertised cars never exit the driveway only to drive two blocks to the shop when they could have more easily walked or ridden a bike.
- Australians waste a lot of time in their cars. For example, the average Victorian drives 17km to and from work each day at an average speed of just 33km per hour. But ads never show an unproductive, boring, frustrating 60 minutes per day deleted from every working person’s life. There is nothing you can do in your car that you can’t do better or more effectively somewhere else.
- Drivers of advertised cars rarely drive alone. If they do, it is only briefly before picking up a friend/date/rock band/entire sports team. The advertised car is a means of connecting with others – in reality there is an average of 1.2 people in your car at any time. You are alone.
Road to congestion
Another commonly used image we readily accept from advertised cars is one of a single car driving down wide, empty streets, unimpeded. It is the equivalent to driving in Perth, on a Tuesday night, at 2am, all the time. However, unless it actually is 2am and you are in Perth, this never happens.
As drivers, though, we consider regular, everyday congestion to be a source of frustration – almost ‘unfair’. Stuck in traffic, we crane our necks to see the dream presented to us by manufacturers; that our car is noble and good while the problem is the roads, the number of other cars, or all the other ‘bad’ drivers.
But our cars won’t be set free with one more bridge, one more lane, ring road or tunnel. It is no truer to say that a lack of roads is the cause of congestion as it is to say a lack of aspirin is the cause of a hangover.
The problem is not the roads, the problem is an abundance of cars. An abundance of cars facilitated by a transport system that continues to place the car at its core.
By accepting the skewed reality presented to us by the dream of the car we consign ourselves to placing ever more cars on our roads and ignoring more efficient and productive alternatives. In doing so, we willingly preside over a transport system that creates wholly predictable deaths, injuries, pollution, congestion and even ruins the once loved experience of driving, itself.
Jason Thompson is a Research Assistant, PhD Candidate at Monash University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.