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ICONOCLAST

ROAD SAFETY 

'Road Rage' is, as I sit here typing, the flavour of the month. I must admit that I doubt that the syndrome actually exists. It's a combination of bad manners and the sense of isolation that the modern motor car provides. The bad manners, sometime culminating in violence can be dealt with by existing legislation. Giving a name to it somehow suggests that it's not the fault of the perpetrator but is something that he (and it is usually we males) does as a result of the evolutionary baggage he carries around. Since this is neither a sociological nor psychological treatise, I shall address myself to the problems created by the car itself.

Once upon a time, it was believed that speeds in excess of 30 mph/50 kph would kill. The idea seems laughable nowadays. Early cars were difficult to drive, had poor brakes, steering, handling, roadholding and non-existent or rudimentary suspension. Fortunately there weren't that many of them and most of them were slow.

Over the decades, cars have become safer and easier to drive. Furthermore they have become more comfortable and better at isolating the occupants from both the elements and from the reality of driving; to the point where most cars are as quiet, comfortable and easy to drive at 70 mph/110 kph as they are at 30 mph/50 kph. Note that the word `safer' does not appear in the sentence above. This is because the laws of physics dictate that damage in the event of an impact is directly related to velocity.

As cars are improved, both in terms of active (braking, steering, handling) and passive (airbags, seat belts, side impact bars) safety, so the illusion of invulnerability becomes reinforced. To employ an analogy, let's imagine walking through a crowded shopping mall. In the first instance you are naked - no, for the sake of modesty you are wearing your swimming costume. You are careful to avoid collisions with other people, walls, displays, etc. In fact your progress is going to be fairly slow as you undertake a whole series of evasive manoeuvres to avoid being hurt. In the second instance you are wearing a mediaeval suit of armour. Your progress will be much more rapid. You can, if you are of a mind, ignore other peoples' well-being and push your way around. The modern car is of course the mediaeval suit of armour. For the swimming costume experience, try riding a motorcycle.

CitroŽn were one of the prime movers in the trend towards safer, more comfortable cars. The removal of projecting items in the interior, the single spoke wheel, extensive dashboard padding, the location of the DS' spare wheel; all of these were examples of radical improvements in passive safety. Citroen also improved on active safety with front wheel drive, radial tyres, disc brakes and numerous other innovations. Good aerodynamics results not only in improved performance and economy but also lower wind noise resulting in lower levels of driver fatigue.

I seriously believe that if we wish to make further gains in road safety, we have to look at the design of the car itself. Alec Issigonis was on the right lines when he said we should make cars that are uncomfortable since this will keep us in touch with the driving experience itself. To employ a reductio ad absurdum argument, one way of reducing injuries might be to get rid of seat belts and replace the driver's airbag with a 12 inch sharpened steel spike mounted in the steering wheel boss. 30 mph/50 kph would seem hellishly fast. The truth is, 30 mph/50 kph is hellishly fast if you hit someone or something. The problem is that sitting in your air-conditioned, hydropneumatically sprung, quiet, living room extension it doesn't seem that way. And at 70mph it still doesn't seem that way. Nor at 110mph/175 kph. The 'better' the car is, the less visceral the driving experience. I have driven some very fast cars very quickly and insist it's much more fun to drive a slow car quickly than it is to drive a quick car slowly. It is undoubtedly the 'visceral experience' that sells motorcycles and open top cars.

I suppose I am advocating a return to slow cars, and to a reduction in speed limits (although if all cars were possessed of 2CV levels of performance there would be no need for legislation to achieve this). Obviously one cannot turn back the clock where automotive safety is concerned, nor would one want to. Perhaps what is required is the abolition of the illusion of safety, although since I am not an automotive designer, I do not know how this can be done without actually compromising safety and (saleability). Nevertheless, it cannot be beyond the wit of man to design a car that reconciles the contradictory needs of pleasure, safety and minimal impact on the world's finite resources. Sounds like an airbagged, side impact bar equipped deux chevaux to me.
 

Since this article was published in 1994 in the CitroŽnian, my reductio ad absurdum suggestion has been repeated  by Jeremy Clarkson in the BBC TV programme Top GearPeter Dron also used the same analogy in the now defunct Carweek and in the Daily Telegraph Motoring supplement - it would appear that great minds think alike.

© 1994 Julian Marsh