Unemployment is up, levels of literacy and numeracy are down and yet the number of people on the roads has never been greater. Cars and motor vehicles in general seem like an aspect of the fabric of modern life, but stop to actually think of how complex they are in operation, how intricate they are in engineering and how dangerous they are careering through a housing estate at 40mph between parked cars round 4pm and you should get a bit more nervous about their prevalence. Since a young age my main means of transport around where I've lived has been my push bike, along with the mix of danger, animosity and health benefits that it entails.
The health benefits of cycling are fairly obvious, and if you've ever been out on a busy road you'll have probably seen the animosity too, as normally well mannered individuals turn into slavering rage-beasts impotent with jealousy that you can pass by the traffic jam which they paid £1000s in material, tax, insurance and fuel to be part of. I could easily spend an article just pointing out the idiocy of a large number of drivers on the road, wrapped up in the idea that they pay road tax when really there's no such thing, and their attitudes but there's little point, as they all know the stats that cyclists cause 1.2 million road deaths per year, whereas cars cause none.
Woah! So, I misattributed that stat - it's obviously actually motor vehicles that cause 1.2 million deaths per year, but that's a pretty staggering figure. Road traffic accidents are the one cause of death that make it into the World Health Organisation's top 10 worldwide causes of death, alongside various medical conditions. So whilst our doctors and scientists fight through the extraordinary array of diseases both infectious and degenerative, we've managed to create something which, should those other disease death rates start to fall, will keep on wiping us out anyway? I'm just going to come out and say; that's f**king stupid.
So, why do we have to have these motor vehicles? That's an easier question surely? The modern world depends on this availability of transport, of people commuting, travelling, visiting others. There's no doubt that motor vehicles have changed the way we do things, and enabled a lot of amazing things that would not previously have been possible. And yes, they have also benefitted our quality of life - we can shop, we can explore, we get to the hospital faster when we contract cause of death 1-9. But all that's kind of useless if we leave hospital and get mowed down by number 10.
Remember that intricate vehicle we talked about earlier? Remember the inumerate teenager who's driving it? Do you really trust someone who can't do basic math to operate a complex and highly dangerous piece of machinery? Then again, what about the mild mannered computer programmer who's busy swearing at a cyclist for being in their way when they wanted to turn left without indicating? Or the experienced driver of 40 years who just happened to drop his map and is fishing around for it on the floor? The reality is that no level of intelligence or experience really makes us safe in a motor vehicle. At best the regulations hold back the flood, but sooner or later something goes wrong.
There are maybe a few solutions to allow humans to become better drivers, but most seem unlikely. A parent with two children in the back will happily race through their own estate, risking the untimely death of a friend's child with little consideration for how they'd feel if they knew their kids were being put in similar peril by those same friends. A taxi driver who's very livelihood is dependant on their continuing permission to drive will speed, run lights and attempt to scare their passengers to make a few extra pounds. Today a bus on Oxford Road decided that trying to overtake me metres before a bus stop and then pull in as he was passing was a smart thing to do. He probably went home to his family and complained about me - would he have been so eager to complain had his actions placed me in a coma?
No, whilst there's reason maybe to allow driving by humans outside of towns and cities, within the tight streets, around playing children and pedestrians and in front of peoples' homes few humans can be trusted with a car. So it is with great relief that I (surely along with many A&E nurses) have followed the progress of Google's driverless car as it pioneers what will hopefully be the salvation from this dire situation which we've got ourselves into. Their new car uses a combination of video, radar and laser range finding to monitor the road in ways humans can only dream of. They've been testing the car in Nevada, US and have recently been granted a license within that state to have the car drive without a trained "takeover" driver present in case something goes wrong. Other car companies are seeking similar licenses (Google use a Toyota Prius) and hopefully the cars will slowly spread across the states; once enough states permit it the technology will surely begin to be rolled out on commercial vehicles - it may even be that existing modern cars can be refitted.
I have no idea how long this process will take, but the number of possibilities these cars open up will be huge - traffic jams eliminated as every car can set off at the same time at a set of lights, and maneouvre through narrow lanes with ease, even taking into account surface hazards like water or oil. I would hope that within a few years of these cars coming into service plans will be put in place, maybe over a decade or more, to gradually restrict human driven cars from entering built up areas. Eventually any inner city or even minor town area would be self-drive only, with humans able to take over outside if necassery for enforcement reasons. Whether motorways would be self-drive or human driven could change - motorways can actually be safer, but with self-drive cars speed limits could be hugely increased when the roads are well maintained.
Of course the arguments will come, people questioning whether they'd "trust" a machine, and doubltess accidents will still happen when an unforseen circumstance arises. Though is that really a detriment, balanced with the fact that never again will someone lose their life because a driver decided the road was an ideal place to put their make up on?