Tuesday 25 March 2014

Motoring - the most dehumanising activity

I was struck by a story at the BBC this week. I'll post the first part of the story here:
The fake body of a dead cyclist has been left on the side of a dangerous stretch of road in Belarus as part of a police safety campaign, it appears.
The scene was set up to look like a hit-and-run, with a mangled cycle and tyre tracks left near the dummy. But officers found only nine people stopped out of 186 cars that drove past, news site Tut.by says. Occasionally, an officer posed as a concerned passer-by, to flag down drivers for help. "Sometimes this worked," the website reports.
So out of 186 motorists, 9 stopped because there was a body on the road. And many people wouldn't even stop if someone was trying to flag them down to help.

Let me rephrase that - out of 186 people who happened to be driving, only 9 felt sufficient empathy with their fellow human beings such that they stopped to assist someone who was injured.

Now we can write this off as crazy foreign stuff, in a place most of us know less about than we should (but what we do 'know' is bad) - is it somewhere so lawless that you'd be expecting a trap, we might ask? There's just no way any of us when faced with such a scenario wouldn't stop and help. Is there? Heavens forbid we accept that this is a fair summary of motoring...

I'm reminded of so many other stories that are eerily similar to this one. For example, 6% of motorists went out of their way to kill animals using their cars. Not animals that they might subsequently eat (although I can't immediately think of a less reasonable way one might hunt than by mowing animals down with your car), or animals that present any kind of hazard. This is people killing animals using their vehicles because they want to, no other reason. Shits and giggles. And when we look at the number and severity of hit-and-run incidents where motorists hit a cyclist or pedestrian and drive off it beggars belief. This is happening all the time - you're not safe from this on pedestrian crossings or even on the pavement. Thats hitting another human being, with a gargantuan gleaming lump of metal and glass, and just carrying on like it didn't happen.

It would be absurd to go looking for complex, difficult phenomena to explain this when we really don't have to - there's an answer right in front of us. The linking feature, the thing that binds all of these things together, is the car. All too high a proportion of car drivers lose a little bit of empathy with anyone not in a car. It seems that so many of them take on a little of the persona of their vehicles - they resent control of their speed (hence the large majority break speeding laws), they resent anyone on the road who isn't another car driver even when they're taking up less space than a car, in fact they get strangely arsey that anyone else on the road might think that they are in fact a car themselves. Yes, really, they're that far gone - they hate us for thinking that we're cars, even though they themselves are just people like we are. They're so invested in their motorist identity that they don't differentiate between themselves and their vehicles, and they see our presence as a threat to the moton hegemony. This branches out in to an insane belief we're not giving them their due respect or that we are in some way smug, often supported by a lack of any understanding why we cycle and projections based on their own self perceived inadequacies. They are 'normal', we are not, we owe them visible subservience.

Rules on our road only work when everyone agrees that they matter - but to come to that conclusion requires that we have the capacity to see situations from other peoples point of view, specifically from the perspective of the person who could get hurt as a result of our transgression. If you're a motorist, that means 'the other guy'. As I have often hi-lighted here, the vast majority of injuries on our roads are caused by motorists - the very people who we can demonstrate show the least empathy for other road users - and if directly studied we can see that far too many motorists show no compassion or, worse, a desire to cause harm.

This is the great flaw in the thinking behind transport in our modern world. By favouring the most dehumanising mode of transport we increase risk for anyone not using that mode - if you're not driving, you're at greater risk, so most people choose to drive. After a generation or two of that we've planned housing, work, shopping, health etc. solely for those who drive - anyone else doesn't really count, they're just weird. The result is a horribly dysfunctional car-dominated dystopia. 

We're living in the future. Its worse than we'd feared.


  1. I recognise this, but don't understand it. I stopped last night to take a mortally wounded cat out of the road, clearly only just hit by the car before. I did it because better for the owners to have a recognisable body to grieve over & bury than to find a sad mess in the road. While I was doing so, another motorist drove at me with obvious impatience. Do 6% of drivers do this kind of thing deliberately? Are so many turned into dangerous psychopaths just by being behind the wheel??

    1. The simple answer is that if we believe the results of such studies as I've mentioned above then, yes, 6% or more of people driving are precisely as dangerous as you describe. The real question is whether motoring makes you that way or whether it simply allows this to show through. Little of both, I suspect.

  2. A very promising blog post that could be improved with re-writing of the second half, right after the sentence that begins with "the linking feature". Explanation: just as people who ride bikes generally don't identify as "cyclists", people who drive cars (which includes most people who ride bikes) don't identify as "motorists", so the rant at "motorists" is way wide of the mark.

    The point I think you're trying to make, and it's a good one, is that the *act* of driving flicks the empathy switch off in a lot of people. I suggest that the same people who act so badly when driving would most likely offer help if they were walking or cycling.

    This recent Dutch article (you might have to auto-translate it) implies what I've said above, i.e. that the act of driving flicks a switch in the human brain from peace-loving bonobo to aggressive chimpanzee.


    I hope this is all taken as constructive criticism. I don't blog myself so I appreciate the effort you've put into your writing.

    Jim Moore

    1. Jim, thats fine, comments appreciated.

      But I don't entirely agree with them - I agree 'motorists' don't identify as 'motorists', they identify as 'normal' and non-motorists are 'not normal'. And as in most instances of simple out-group psychology those who aren't normal are inferior - its not a conscious construct, its simply how 'others' are seen.

      So I'd stick with 'motorists' here - I don't think they need to identify themselves as such for it to apply.