by Peter Hitchens

Life would be a lot easier if I did not hate motor cars. But I just do hate them. I have tried not to. I even learned to drive at the age of thirty-one, a terrible surrender made as I sought to fit in with what felt increasingly like a compulsory faith. But I never really submitted, and have since drifted away from it. These days I drive perhaps twice a year. This is usually to attend the slowly increasing number of funerals of old friends in remote English village churches, which I must go to but could never otherwise reach. The sigh of relief as I heave myself out of the machine at the end of the sad day lasts for half a minute.

No doubt the other road users who have encountered me are glad too, since I drive like a little old lady. You know the sort of thing: signaling before turning, keeping to speed limits, not thinking I can see round corners, treating sharp bends as dangerous, and so on. Everything is calculated to infuriate my fellow drivers. I get honked at quite a bit, especially on those winding English country roads where a minimum speed of sixty miles an hour is enforced by rage and scorn. But nobody can say I have not driven. I have fought my way through the freeways of Los Angeles. I have been rammed by a lorry by night on the Moscow Garden Ring, a highway which is nothing like as nice as it sounds. I have been driven on all too many Third World journeys, eyes often closed and knuckles always white, as I grip the handle above the window that car manufacturers provide for people like me. I have had my masculinity openly doubted by scores of airport taxi drivers who think seat belts are for sissies.

Have these people no imagination, I wonder, as they drive at seventy miles an hour two feet from the vehicle in front? The answer has to be that they have none. I hear the angry bang of steel on steel, the scream of ripping metal. I feel the lurch as the thing tips and tumbles, gasp as we lose contact with the ground, see the fire and observe, as from above, the police and paramedics probing through the hideous mess in which what is left of me lies. I see in my mind’s eye the paragraph in my newspaper, accompanied by an unflattering blurred picture, describing how I lost my life in search of the truth, or something like that. They obviously do not see any of this, or they would not drive like that. But in such places I have no power to stop them. Any protest is met with contempt and, if persisted with, regarded as a personal insult. If I want to get to my exciting destination, some of the journey is always going to be like that.

I suppose they just carry on driving like that until they kill themselves and most of their passengers, and they are then immediately replaced by others just like them. There seems to be no shortage. In fact, a belief that cars are good, that driving them is an enjoyable virtue and that doing so as if there was no danger is normal and wise, seems to be universal in both hemispheres and all latitudes. 

The day will pretty certainly come when I cannot bring myself to drive at all. Already the responsibility seems far too great. 

But this is not just about safety. In fact it is hardly about safety at all. Very early in life I was introduced to railway trains; I have agreed ever since with the person who said that if God had meant us to drive he would never have given us the railroads. Trains and trams, supplemented by bicycles, would cover all our transport needs in a rational society. Motor vehicles would be reserved for those whose trades required them to carry heavy tools long distances, for ambulances and for fire engines. But the adults in my early life, especially my parents, had grown up in the 1930s, the age where the car was viewed as a thrilling liberator. And on the British highways of my childhood, this belief still had not quite faded away. Traffic jams and parking problems, now endemic and universal, were only just beginning to appear. So it was a matter of pride to have a small car on the small drive in front of the small house. The illusion that motor cars represented limitless freedom has taken a very long time to die. Some of our family cars were convertibles, meaning that, after a long struggle with wing-nuts and springs, you could drive with the roof down, either until it started raining again or the passengers complained too much about the wind. It was supposed to feel like the South of France, but it didn’t. 

Mainly I felt sick. Often I was sick. After the first such episode, I did not expect or get any sympathy for this annoying problem. To this day the deadly combination of tobacco smoke and gasoline fumes can set off a nostalgic wave of nausea, which takes me right back to the 1950s—a decade which people like me are always being accused of idealizing, but which I actually recall as a time of cigarette ash, dental fillings, and gristle. 

This combination of influences meant that I was never one of those boys who found cars fascinating. My favorite toy was a train set, and next after that came my rather fine scale models of warships and ocean liners (where are they now?). And, if you do not love automobiles for what they are, I think you are bound in the end to hate them for what they do. Look at the way they spoil every prospect. A line of garishly colored cars parked in a beautiful city square wrecks the proportions of the place. Their curious shapes, inhuman and flashy, clash violently with almost every style of architecture except the most brutal concrete modernism. The incessant noise and smell of them, the horrible danger they represent to soft human bodies, the space they take up, are all outrages against peace, beauty, and kindness. Near where I live, there are several roads where drivers are officially encouraged to park on the sidewalk, because if they parked on the narrow road, it would be impassable. The logic of this is inexorable, once you have assumed the supremacy of the car. But if you are a car heretic, the thing is a blood-boiling outrage. Think a little about these devices. They damage their drivers and passengers by depriving them of exercise, helping them along the way to heart disease and lower-back problems. Apart from cigarettes, no other product, used according to the manufacturers’ instructions, does so much harm to its users. 

Then there is their sheer irrationality as a means of transport. A rubber tire on a paved road creates more than thirty times as much friction as a steel wheel on a steel rail, a ludicrous waste of energy. And how much use is a private car without a public, tax-financed highway? Far from being pioneering symbols of freedom and individuality, they rely on the construction by the state of thousands of miles of hard-to-maintain roads and bridges, usually hideous. Yet despite all this, most private cars spend most of their existence depreciating by the side of a road or in a parking lot, an astonishingly inefficient use of so much costly machinery and expensively produced steel, rubber, and glass. And I am not at all mollified by the new fashion for electric cars. They have all the disadvantages of their gasoline or diesel-driven brothers. In fact, they are worse, as their owners are infuriatingly self-satisfied and imagine they are being kind to the planet. Yet they merely transfer the unavoidable noise and pollution needed to make and charge their batteries to another place.

As for the effect that cars have on the characters of their owners and drivers, it is a fascinating illustration of Lord Acton’s maxim on the corrupting nature of power. For most of us, control of a motor car on the road is the greatest slice of power we will ever have. Immediately we slide behind the wheel, we become superior to lesser, slower, quieter road users. We also become superior to our normal selves. For we are caught up in the advertisers’ dream of the motor car as ultimate personal space, ultimate expression of individuality, ultimate key to freedom. How many of us can truly say we are not transformed for the worse by taking the controls of an automobile, especially in urban traffic? 

Why is it that an object so hostile to beauty, health, and reason has become the triumphant symbol of our modern civilization? Why are grown men besotted with them. How can anyone explain the car commercials on T.V. and at movie theaters, in which cars are portrayed with something close to reverence, emotional music swelling as the polished boxes hurry about on mysteriously empty city streets, in which it is possible to stop and park at will, or on remote country roads which have been specially cleared of any other cars, or indeed people? These short unreal dramas offer the illusion of personal liberation. But the obvious truth, that real roads are not like this, is known to makers and buyers and drivers alike. However expensive and glossy the machine, it will still be stuck in traffic, just like all the others. Is the automobile in fact some sort of god, a graven image of imaginary freedom and power, which we worship because we actually have neither freedom nor power? 

I’ve noticed another curious aspect of this, the way in which the politically exalted, who have got real power, assert themselves in heavy armored cars with noisy, urgent police escorts. Does any other form of transport so eloquently signal contempt for those it passes? In the old Soviet Union I lived on Moscow’s Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a wide street which ran between the elite’s country houses on the Moscow River and the Kremlin. This road had a special lane right in the middle, set aside for the immense black ZiL limousines reserved for the Soviet Politburo. As the ZiLs growled by at ninety miles an hour, the ordinary people must have wondered why their theoretically egalitarian leaders needed such special treatment. There was no better proof that the Communist paradise was a lie. Yet the leaders of World Communism enjoyed this arrogant display and it never seemed to do them any harm. Nowadays, in London—which daily grows more officially egalitarian—I am often urged to pull my bicycle into the side of the road by officious motorcycle patrolmen blowing whistles and gesticulating, so that some convoy of the privileged can zoom past. Who these people are, I do not know. When I peer through the tinted windows of their highly-polished cars, I seldom recognize the occupants and frankly, if they wanted to be safe from the public they could just as well take an ordinary taxi, or a bus, where no potential assassin would give them a second glance. Or they could ride a bike. But the motor car confers power and status, while other means of getting about are considered undignified or humiliating for such as they. So they must ride in cars, and have squads of cops to clear the way for them. 

Displayed in showrooms like works of art, washed and polished by their proud owners, promoted as if they were the supreme sign of status and wellbeing, are automobiles in fact 21st century idols to be placated and groveled to? I used to wonder at the children of Israel, and their incessant backsliding into idol-worship. One minute it was the golden calf. A little later they were groveling before the altars of Moloch and Ashtaroth, or of Baal. Why, as the Psalmist asked, would anyone worship “a calf that eateth hay”? Why, despite repeated warnings and punishments, would they troop up to the high places to make grisly sacrifices to the greedy and vicious godlets of Moab, Edom, and Philistia? But in this age of mass abortion, Babylonian sexual liberation and car-worship, I wonder less. Our small lives are full of golden calves of one kind or another, through which in the end we worship ourselves. But the greatest of these is the automobile. Perhaps we should call it the great god ZiL.

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