Posted on 5/25/2018, 1:15:56 PM by rickmichaels
It is perhaps our most astonishing social contract. Universal, essential and (mostly) binding, it depends of a certain amount of skill, (hopefully) a modicum of training and, most of all, trust.
I am talking, of course, about driving a car. And even though, in the span of just a century and a quarter, it is now just as common an everyday task as taking out the garbage or shopping for groceries, it remains an amazing — possibly the most amazing — social construct we all share.
Think about it for just a minute. Except for the time spent on divided highways, we humans strap ourselves into two-ton projectiles and drive (almost) straight at one another knowing/expecting/please-God-hoping we will pass each other, within a metre or two, going in diametrically opposing directions. We’ll do this millions of times in our lives, at closing speeds of up to 200 kilometres an hour, all the while, again, /expecting/please-God-hoping the person heading directly toward you understands the concept of “you stick to your side of the road, I’ll stick to mine.” We do it without thinking. We assume — how could you drive otherwise? — that every single other participant in these close encounters of the automobile kind has bought into the same social contract. And, we do so from the tender age of 16 when, if my experience with parenting is any indication, we shouldn’t even be trusted with a frying pan.
By social contract standards, it is incredibly loosely guarded: Essentially, a painted line in the middle of the road is our one safeguard against trespass. Nonetheless, it is immensely reliable. Imagine the carnage if we all had accidents at the rate we get divorced. It is also almost assuredly the most universal social contract made around the world. Left- or right-hand drive excepted, the art of driving is practiced almost identically everywhere. Compared with, again, marriage — forced nuptials, arranged brides, etc. — or dining customs — forks, chopsticks, fingers etc. — there is a resolute sameness to the basic rules of the road around the world. Drive anywhere — again, left-and right-hand drive orientation excepted — and the skills can be transposed to just about any other jurisdiction.
Oh, there are contraventions of the contract. Besides the narcissistic (texting while driving) and the criminally stupid (driving while intoxicated) there is also the flagrantly selfish — my sister, her husband and their unborn child were all killed because some asshat decided his social contract included a clause that allowed him to try to pass five cars at a stretch when he knew (later revealed in court testimony) that there was room for but four.
Indeed, even those who think nothing of breaking the legal contract of driving — i.e. driving beyond the speed limit, dangerous driving, etc. — depend on said social contract to save their bacon. For instance, the asshats — this time two-wheeled — who video themselves weaving between cars at 300 km/h aboard their Suzuki Hayabusas and Kawasaki Ninjas are relying on absolutely everybody else sticking with the very social contract they themselves are breaking. Otherwise, they’d quickly end up a bright red smear all over the highway.
Oh, adherence to the contract is imperfect; worldwide, 1.25 million humans die every year in automobile collisions. It’s a grotesque number, yes. And yet, that translates into barely one death for every hundred million miles, an incredibly low statistic considering, as I posited at the very beginning of this treatise, we’re basically driving straight at one another.
I state all these seemingly obvious truths because this social contract is coming under scrutiny as of late. At some time in the future — as soon as 15 years from now if you believe former General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz — we may all be told we’ll no longer be allowed to drive, the social contract that has governed driving for 125 years simply to dangerous to continue. Indeed, I suspect the right to drive versus our desire for safety will almost certainly become the individual-rights/public-good question of our generation.
We are already in the midst of the transition. When a company such as Volvo — it that virtually invented safety as a marketing tool — says no one will perish in one of its cars after 2020, what it is really saying is it is seeking to eliminate all risk in the task of driving. No matter how big the airbag or absorbent the crumple zone, the only way to completely eliminate deaths due to automobile collisions is to completely eliminate said collisions. And since you and I are the main reason for these accidents, well, you don’t need a road map to see where this is going.
The bigger question in all of this is whether safety has become our society’s paramount concern. Certainly for all those university students who need a “safety room” every time they are “triggered” by freedom of speech, it has. If that’s the case, then the future of personal driving has already been sealed.
If not, then the question becomes what level of risk are we willing to accept to be allowed to continue to enjoy the privilege of driving. For instance, will Toyota’s philosophy of providing universal driving “aids” on all its cars, but leaving the ultimate care and control of the automobile in the driver’s hands, be acceptable? Are the 30 to 50 per cent of lives these technologies might save — my numbers, not Toyota’s — sufficient to permit us to keep driving?
These are all questions, no matter how uncomfortable, that need to be discussed in a forthright manner in a public forum. The choice, otherwise, is to let our politicians and their safety organization mandarins dictate the decision. That’s almost never a wise choice.