Safety First

Last year my ageing Ford Galaxy limped past the 100,000 milestone, an event that was marked by an agonisingly embarrassing party by the side of the road attended by one guest – myself. Since then it has gone to the great big Webuyanycar in the sky, and I know not of its whereabouts now. I do not put flowers on the driveway where it used to sit, and on the brief occasions it enters my thoughts, it is mostly to remember the times it made funny noises or wouldn’t start. There is a new subject of my affections, you see.

I became totally obsessed with car safety 12 years ago after my friend became the crumple zone in an old mini. That he survived, just, was miraculous, and that he continues to drive around in old cars whose brakes may not consent to work at any given moment is baffling. That horrific incident led to me buying a Renault Laguna, which was back then about the safest car you could buy, before coming to my senses when its engine blew up one day. It seems that the French and their cars are one and the same – stylish but temperamental, and likely to down tools at any moment. The Galaxy that replaced it was 5-star safe by the standards of ten years ago but time has moved on, along with car technology, so there was really only one option when I wanted to renew my peace of mind.

Volvo have announced “Our vision is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car”, a claim so preposterous that it is astonishing I have, literally, bought into it. Watch any ‘Fails’ clip on Youtube and you shall quickly realise that the human race has an almost infinite capacity for stupidity. It is simply inconceivable that somebody somewhere will not follow their Satnav over a cliff or accidentally park on a railway, and then all the crash tests and airbags in Sweden are unlikely to save you.

Volvo vision

However, it is certainly a brave mission statement, and I became smitten by the concept, taking ownership of my first ever new car in January. I adore the sense of stepping into a security blanket, but we have already had regular disagreements on the road. When I drift back into the middle lane after overtaking it believes I’ve fallen asleep and a wrestling match ensues over which lane I should be in, and the other day it condescendingly suggested “Time for a break?” How dare it suggest my driving was deteriorating! At least it hasn’t yet told me “Stop picking your nose and driving with your knees, Neil.”

So the last few months have witnessed an ongoing power struggle, highlighted by the moments when it simply refuses to move unless I do as it tells me. Okay, I have a bad habit of putting on my seatbelt after driving off, but I can see that my driveway is safe and it can’t. In fact, in trying to ensure safety, new Volvos may actually be increasing the danger – it is possible that someone could stop on a level crossing to rescue a stray duckling, realise a train is coming, and not be able to drive out the way until they’ve put their bloody seatbelt on.

Of course, I get the overview. Stray ducklings on level crossings are less likely to kill people than insisting drivers belt up before proceeding, but there is certainly an element of nanny state about it. I know I have a self-inflated view of my driving skills, but I cannot escape the notion that I’m better than a computer. I’ve never used the automatic parking option because I just can’t devolve power like that.

Yet of course, as I often say to my boys who are about to begin their own lifelong journeys into the pleasures and perils of driving, the default position has to be that everyone else on the road is a complete moron. My utopian position is that every other car on the road except mine should be driven by a Volvo computer, a vision that my boys gleefully throw in my face when I make the smallest of errors on the road.

This situation has parallels with libertarianism and even Darwinian theory. Is it a human right to be able to experience danger? I believe it is a right of every idiot to improve the gene-pool by driving dangerously and killing themselves, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else, and of course that is where the situation on the roads differs from arguments about the extent of CCTV, taking drugs or flying wingsuits.

For the safety of everyone on the roads, it can only be a good thing that we make cars safer, but will it actually improve driving? It is generally recognised, for example, that protective equipment in rugby such as head guards have increased injuries because it has given players a false sense of invincibility and raised a generation of players who don’t tackle properly. In attempting to make something safer, is it inevitable that in the long run it will become even more dangerous than before?

This question epitomises the conundrum that all parents face – the world is a dangerous place, but wrapping children in cotton wool will deprive them of the ability to recognise, understand and avoid danger. The only way your child is going to learn about danger is by experiencing it, and the nature of the beast is that it is unpredictable and not constrained to discrete situations. Yet you don’t want your child to learn that something is dangerous by seriously injuring or killing themselves.

If we sanitise the driving experience with lane-keeping aids, blind spot alerts and automatic braking, are we storing up potential problems by diminishing the need for the human to look after themselves? What happens when somebody steps out of their new Volvo and gets in their spouse’s car or a hire car that doesn’t have these features? And are we likely to raise a generation who won’t be as good as their predecessors simply because they don’t have to be?

It is possible, but I would rather have poor drivers in safe cars than good drivers in unsafe cars. We may well be heading to a future where we trust only computers to drive our cars, and whilst we can bemoan the loss of our independence and fret about the creep of the nanny state, if it saves lives on the roads it can only be a good thing. Volvo are not naive and realise that safety sells cars and makes profits for them, but as an ambitious and courageous statement of intent it is hard to fault, and I for one feel very happy to be part of their crusade.