Today I’ve been reading and thinking about how we go about attempting to control behaviour on our roads. People cannot be trusted, it seems, which is why we have laws and punishments. Presumably, they are to protect the many from the few.
What are we attempting to protect ourselves against? On the roads, it’s primarily about danger to life and limb, with other directives for improving and maintaining the flow of traffic. As pedestrians are not a danger to each other (as traffic), laws were not required until methods of transport became bigger, heavier, and faster. Traffic laws popped up not long after we invented the wheel, technically, but it was around the turn of the 20th century that the need for regulation became something that could not be ignored. Cars spread like wildfire and were used by people who did not really understand them nor had any intention of using them responsibly. Some initial rules came and went (like attempts to govern speed), but it was some time (about 30-40 years) before governments regained some control over the streets (this is a fascinating read about that time). Some would argue that we still haven’t, given our rather sad attempts in most places to reach the goals, lofty and crucial as they are, of Vision Zero.
It seems as though there has been a degree of tension between people’s rights and freedoms to do what they want and their rights and freedoms to not be harmed in some way by those who want to do whatever they want. When freedoms collide. A dilemma as old as the hills. Cars were not illegal, driving them became commonplace before authorities really had time to properly regulate them, and they did prove to be quite advantageous in support of the American dream, as such (and elsewhere, of course), so, though cars had their detractors and serious consequences, they were ultimately not something that the powers that be had any interest in eliminating.
This same problem still exists, and always will. As I’ve said before, it’s just a matter of priorities. We can all but eliminate traffic fatalities if that truly is the priority, but it would mean a change in lifestyle for most people. A complete shift in the way we operate in our modern life.
Now, I’m obviously coming from a position where I see our roads as serving the needs of some things at the expense of others, whereas many of those “needs” are simply “wants and preferences”, the satisfaction of those coming to the detriment of more important things of greater consequence.
Given the state of our roads, it is safe to say that they are not in good shape. They are often over-loaded, in poor condition, and have a parasitic effect on the communities they cut through, offering increasingly less in the way of convenient and efficient travel (their only benefit currently), and increasingly more in the way of pollution, financial cost, cost to levels of personal well-being, encouraging sprawl, and still taking lives and compromising others at an alarming rate.
The roads are sick, and need a cure. They need to be restored back to health, and then we need to take measures to make sure that the healthy state is maintained by ensuring the use of ongoing preventative measures. We do the same for ourselves when we are sick, so we recognize the need, and in general, agree with a course of action that seeks to cure the condition. When the problems are small, however, people tend to put them off. They are unpleasant and not urgent, and we’d rather enjoy doing whatever it was that got us to that point in the first place. We’ve had a steady diet of junk food, which was hugely rewarding in our youth and didn’t present any noticeable downsides, but steadily resulted in poorer health, mood swings, high cholesterol, diabetes, and putting on more and more weight. Before we know it, we’re dangerously unhealthy, and now that it is more than a simple solution, we find all sorts of ways to tell ourselves it’s either not necessary, it’s just the way it is, or it’s too hard, because we fear the loss of our indulgences.
So we do things that pacify our desire to feel better without really doing anything to address the real problems. We apply ointments to problems that require surgery. We buy gadgets that promise to shed pounds while sitting in the comfort of our sofas in front of the TV. Pills that are supposed to lose the weight for us. Products that are supposed to buy happiness. Helmets that are supposed to save us from the risk of getting run over. “Share the road” campaigns that are supposed to do the work of better design. Painted lines rather than dedicated space. Calling everything an “accident” rather than collision.
We distance ourselves from the reality of the situation because the junk food tastes so good. It makes us happy, until we realize, when the craving is satisfied, that it’s not making anything better after all. We love to drive our cars, but hate sitting in traffic, complain about parking, moan about the cost of insurance and petrol. It’s a weird relationship.
I guess that’s the most important but the most difficult problem that has to be addressed – to realize, fully, that we are suffering from a condition. Some places have it worse than others, but most everyone is treating it with superficial ointments that do nothing to cure the underlying problem.
I have a feeling that if we can solve for the first problem, the second one will be attended to quite easily. Some places have done just that. Conversely, if we fail to admit that there is a problem, the matter of curing it becomes moot. In the meantime we apply ointments to the problems on our roads because we don’t see, or don’t want to, that there is a far more fundamental issue at stake. Cars are great. They are useful. They are efficient many contexts. But, like a taste for junk food, their over-consumption has become a rather serious problem that is effecting many different facets of our lives, too often terminally.
Most people live with the discomfort of a mentality that assumes that going anywhere means driving. That dull ache that is the sign of something more sinister. That shortness of breath will one day result in a heart-attack, from which you might not recover. We treat that annoying rash that is cycling and walking with the light ointment of token infrastructure and continue on our way.
Our roads are in need of a cure. We need to realize that there is a problem before it can be treated properly, but what I can’t understand is how the problem isn’t quite obvious by now. Well, I guess I can – like smoking, if you haven’t had personal experience with something drastic like you or someone you care about getting cancer, I suppose it’s fairly easy to ignore.
When cars came on the scene, they attacked with a ferocious bite. We believe we have domesticated the beast, used it for our own good, and brought the wound under control, but all the while the infected wound been festering, and I just hope that we wake up and cure it before we have to start amputating limbs.
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