The menace of the petrolheads

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 7 June 2006.

I detest Jeremy Clarkson, and do so with a passion. Clarkson for me epitomises more than anyone else the “Fuck you, I have a right to do whatever I want, and anyone who disputes this is a Nazi!” faux-libertarianism that pervades our effluent society. He has an acerbic wit, you say? Well, so too has Anne Robinson, and she serves no useful purpose either.

Like many I own a car and claim that I couldn’t manage without it, but at least I drive my aged Ford Fiasco no more than 7000 kilometres per year, and often go for so long without driving that I forget where I’ve parked the damned thing. If I lived full-time in a region with an integrated and affordable public transport system, would I really need my car? No, and in such circumstances I would gladly be rid of it. But the four words “integrated public transport system” amount to an almost mystical mantra when used in a British context. In countries such as Denmark it is a material reality, but even there you see private car use increasing as a result of the ideology of personal choice. Jeremy Clarkson is an archetype, not an individual, and with the automobile we are in the grip of a mass psychosis.

Road transport is responsible for around 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK, and half of that comes from private cars. While rural dwellers depend on their infernal combustion engines, cars are being driven mostly within and between cities, which makes no sense, or at least wouldn’t if there was an – yes, you guessed it – integrated public transport system. Not only that, the number of vehicles in use is increasing steadily, and many households have more than one.

It’s not just that there are so many cars on the road that bothers me, but also the way in which they’re driven. Aside from drunk and spliffed-up motorists endangering lives, many people drive with no regard to fuel efficiency. Maybe they don’t need to worry about the costs involved, yet I suspect that relatively few know exactly how much money they spend on their cars, and how much could be liberated for other uses if they saved on the motoring.

And then there’s speed. How fast do you drive? Do you keep to speed limits? How many times have you been fined for speeding, and what is your view of speed cameras? Are the cameras there to help save lives, or are they just revenue-raising machines? Would you go as far as to vandalise speed cameras?

The efficiency of a car engine plummets at speeds greater than around 90 kilometres per hour, yet many motorists cruise happily along motorways at 130 km/h and more, and think speed limits apply only to drivers less capable than themselves – i.e., everyone else. Enough, I say! Why not set an absolute national speed limit of 90 km/h and enforce it ruthlessly? That and the ban on mobile phone use behind the wheel. When compulsory seat belt use was being considered there were howls of outrage from indignant civil libertarians, but since the law came into effect there has been barely a squeak of protest, and it will be the same for a reduction in speed limits.

Driving is one of the most dangerous and environmentally unfriendly activities we engage in, and if individuals cannot act responsibly by their own initiative, the community has a duty to lay down rules and enforce them. Jeremy Clarkson can take his petrol-hedonism and stick it where the sun never shines.