VIEWED from above it looked as though a child had tipped his old toy box on to a model bridge, with dented cars, vans, lorries and transporters landing this way and that in a higgledy-piggledy heap of die-cast metal.
On the ground, of course, the gravity of the 130-vehicle pile-up on the Sheppey Crossing in Kent was unmistakable. Broken windscreens, crumpled bonnets and busted bumpers created an interlocking sculpture of mangled steel, a shocking reminder of the dangers of driving in thick fog and a testament to man’s obsession with the motor car.
It isn’t clear yet what caused last week’s accident which left eight people seriously injured. Some witnesses blamed poor lighting, others a lack of speed restrictions. There were also reports of “idiots” tailgating and forgetting to put their fog lights on, even though they could barely see ten yards in front of them. Disorientated drivers recalled hearing the screeching of brakes and the shattering of glass as a succession of cars hit the one in front like a line of dominoes.
Whatever lay behind the carnage, the sight of all those wrecks, numbered like court exhibits, and the walking wounded wandering along the road like extras in a zombie movie, made me reflect on the influence cars have on our lives and our behaviour. Why is that when we climb into our private carriages we feel not the vulnerability of a human being at the mercy of 2,500lb of metal and several hundred horsepower, but the omnipotence of a Formula 1 driver capable of making fellow motorists eat dust? What is it about getting behind a wheel that turns the most timid pedestrian into a power-hungry speed freak?
Well, maybe not all of us. Tootling along in my Fiat Panda, I feel more like Noddy than the Stig. And, though I have many faults, road-hoggery is not one of them. As a ditherer myself, I have unlimited tolerance for drivers who hover uncertainly at junctions or who are too busy trying to stop their children sticking their tongue-lolling faces out of the back window like dogs to notice the filter light has turned green. I would no sooner stick my middle finger up at someone who cut me up than affix a sticker with the words, “If you can read this, get the hell out of my way,” on my front bumper. I am, you might say, a motorist more peeped against than peeping (except, of course, when my less than easy-going husband reaches over the wheel and hits the horn for me).
I am guilty of other offences; sometimes I will find I’m meandering in the middle lane of the motorway because my mind has wandered off to a piece of work I have to complete or a bill I’ve yet to pay. And I often forget other road users can see me as I stage my own personal karaoke.
But I know people whose characters change when they turn the key in the ignition. I have one normally placid friend who’ll rant and rave if a fellow road user switches lanes at the last minute, and another who got worked up just telling me how much she hates it if the driver at the front of the queue doesn’t move into first gear until after the traffic light has turned to green.
Experts in traffic psychology, the study of the human and environmental factors which influence our driving, suggest even the best motorists fall prey to a lack of self-awareness and a tendency to blame everyone but themselves. When we’re driving we are guilty of double standards, they say. If another motorist makes a mistake we blame their incompetence, but when we do the same we put it down to poor signage or road conditions or the fact our boss kept us late at work. Just as anonymity seems to act as a shield online, so being encased in metal makes us forget other drivers are human. Thus where bumping into someone in the street will lead to apologies all round, a near-miss in a car is likely to be met with mutual aggression.
At the same time, research shows drivers see themselves as in some kind of vehicle hierarchy, where big cars take precedence over small cars, and new ones over old ones (although in my experience, it’s as just common to suffer from little car syndrome, the main symptom of which is a determination that no f***ing wanker in an Audi R8 is going to get the better of you just because you’re driving a Corsa). Scientists have gathered so much information as to what motivates us when we’re driving, they believe they can trick us into slowing down. In 2005, for example, the Transport Research Laboratory reported that painting the roads different colours or removing white lines could be used to make roads look narrower or more windy, encouraging drivers to take more care.
In Scotland, the favoured strategy is to guilt-trip us into action; a recent campaign against road rage featured children singing “the wheels on the car”, their words and body language becoming more aggressive as they copied the insults they heard their parents shout at other drivers.
While I resent the state trying to control what I do or say in the privacy of my vehicle, I guess it doesn’t do any harm to take stock over the way we behave behind the wheel. The accident in Kent may have had little to do with the bad attitudes of drivers, but it does prove that any car is a lethal weapon in bad conditions. And no work deadline, no social engagement, no self-inflated sense of our own ability or importance, is worth the risk of ending up on a debris-strewn highway to hell. «