You might be forgiven for thinking that there are two tribes out there on the roads, motorists and cyclists, given the ‘war on the roads’ rhetoric that we keep being treated to by apparently reputable media outlets (as its sometimes pointed out, if it’s a war, it’s a tad one-sided). The rhetoric is, of course, false. For a start, 80% of cyclists have driving licenses.

Including me. Shit, I’ve even done a speed awareness course…. :$

Yet the rhetoric persists – when it comes to cyclists, apparently ‘they’ all run red lights, ride in the centre of the lane for no reason, fail to have insurance, ride headlong on pavements at OAPs, etc. But then, don’t some cyclists just reciprocate and commit the same error? Look at the image at the top of this post: ‘the drivers are at it again’. So isn’t the same injustice committed against people on bikes constantly being committed against people in cars too? If we don’t like all cyclists to be tarred with the same brush as the rule-breaking ones, isn’t it equally unfair to associate all drivers with the one million or so who don’t have insurance, the 600000 who drive without a license, or those who kill/injure over 24000 people on the UK’s roads every year….OK, sorry, this is starting to sound partisan again.

Isn’t it ultimately just some individuals who are the problem? Aren’t these guys the individuals who would act like plutonium-powered pricks whether they were driving a car, piloting a helicopter or riding a donkey? If the tribal war on the roads rhetoric is to stop, shouldn’t those of us who who ride bikes and keep banging on about ‘the drivers’ wind our necks in, particularly given how conscious we claim to be of what it feels like to be ‘othered’?

Nope. It makes perfect sense to talk about ‘drivers being the problem’. And I speak – as I pointed out above – as an occasional driver (and occasional speed awareness course attendant). Actually, that’s not right. It makes perfect sense to talk about ‘the Driver’ being the problem. What does this mean?

Well, as so often, we need sociologists to show us the way here. 🙂 Sociologists tell us that taking up different roles and positions in societies changes people. New roles bring out potentials in people that other positions in society don’t. And obviously people respond in different ways, but over time it’s possible to spot patterns that weren’t there before the roles were.

Some resist the demands and opportunities certain roles offer. Some bureaucrats in oppressive regimes go through the motions and despise their job, some resist the weight of the system and do their best to throw spanners in the works – while still others come to inhabit their roles in the same way as Adolf Eichmann did. But individual bureaucrats’ individual ways of being bureaucrats aside, it remains true that highly hierarchical bureaucracies create possibilities for humans to behave in ways that don’t exist outside them. A social role doesn’t hover in the ether, either. Typically, they come with specific equipment, just like Lab Technician Barbie or Daycare Assistant Action Man. Whether it’s a computer, a desk, a coffee mug and an office, or a stethoscope and a hospital ward. And this equipment plays a big role in making things possible which otherwise wouldn’t be.

Consider the humble gun. It’s a banal observation that guns don’t kill people, people do. But it’s also true that guns make it possible for humans to visit violence, fear and intimidation on each other in ways that, absent guns, are just impossible. Guns are equipment for a social role, that of ‘gun owner’. When you become a gun owner, you become subject to particular regulations (such as needing a license and a locked cabinet). As a gun owner, not only will you then have a point of view on such measures, but you’ll also have a sense of how others view you because you own a gun. And you’re likely to want to point out how unjust you feel a lot of these views are. And as is extensively documented by US Twitter account Well Regulated Militia, the potential for guns, even with regulations in place, to make the results of mistakes or fits of anger utterly lethal will be front and centre within the debates you’ll end up having.

You probably see a little of where this is going. ‘Driver’ is a social role, which goes along with a particular set of equipment – in particular, a vehicle equipped with an engine and which is subject to a specific set of regulations (such as the relevant bits of the Road Traffic Act 1988 and all sorts of others). What possibilities come along with this role that don’t exist if you’re not occupying it?

Well, personal mobility for a kick-off, over distances that are hard to cover with a bike, horse, skateboard or whatever. Given how shite the railways in the UK have become, getting from Cardiff to, say, Aberdeen is (at least in normal times) far easier by car, with progress only likely to be slowed by stopping for the loo and the occasional Ginsters/Red Bull combo. But other less positive possibilities arise also, alongside the inevitable consequences of adding lots of internal combustion engines to the world, such as pollution, illness, and congested roads.

The philosopher Herbert Marcuse, writing in 1967.

The most telling one, and the one which distinguishes the new from the traditional forms, is what I call technological aggression and satisfaction. The phenomenon is quickly described: the act of aggression is physically carried out by a mechanism with a high degree of automatism, of far greater power than the individual human being who sets it in motion, keeps it in motion, and determines its end or target. The most extreme case is the rocket or missile; the most ordinary example the automobile. This means that the energy, the power activated and consummated is the mechanical, electrical, or nuclear energy of “things” rather than the instinctual energy of a human being. Aggression is, as it were, transferred from a subject to an object, or is at least “mediated” by an object, and the target is destroyed by a thing rather than by a person. This change in the relation between human and material energy, and between the physical and mental part of aggression (man becomes the subject and agent of aggression by virtue of his mental rather than physical faculties) must also affect the mental dynamic. I submit a hypothesis which is suggested by the inner logic of the process: with the “delegation” of destruction to a more or less automated thing or group and system of things, the instinctual satisfaction of the human person is “interrupted,” reduced, frustrated, “super-sublimated.” And such frustration makes for repetition and escalation: increasing violence, speed, enlarged scope. At the same time, personal responsibility, conscience, and the sense of guilt is weakened, or rather diffused, displaced from the actual context in which the aggression was committed.

Herbert Marcuse, Aggressiveness in Advanced Industrial Society (1967)

Apologies for the length of that quotation, but it’s not all verbosity. Marcuse manages to pack a lot into it. Certain kinds of equipment that go along with new social roles, he suggests, make possible a novel and different kind of aggression towards others. When aggression is directed through a powerful machine (the car, tellingly compared directly here to a missile), its consequences become far more serious, but also seem more distant to the person who is using it. At the same time, according to Marcuse, the experience of this aggression is somehow frustrating.

Normally, when human beings respond aggressively to the world around them, then if this response is successful it brings a certain emotional satisfaction. For example, a threat is driven off or goes away. You feel safe again and in control, your sense of self-efficacy confirmed. But when you’re driving a car, aggressive responses to others or indeed to situations – you cut me up, why drive at 25 in a 30 zone, why are there no parking spaces? – don’t generally lead to some kind of resolution. The bastard who cut you up gives you the finger and accelerates ahead of you through a green that then then turns to red, the 25mph learner driver remains oblivious, the streets remain stubbornly full of other people’s cars.

When an urge is frustrated, it often seeks to play itself out again until it achieves satisfaction. Which, while driving, it fails to do. So ‘repetition and escalation’ are the order of the day, along with a sense that somehow it is not really you who is doing all this, based on the other feeling that Marcuse mentions – that responsibility is ‘diffused’: well look, who wouldn’t have been wound up by that twat in the BMW? Or the learner driver who doesn’t know what the bloody limit is? Or by everyone else in the world who has a car and wants to park the sodding thing – just like you?

Cocooned inside a metal cage alongside all these others, you become a Driver – living out the possibilities Marcuse identifies, and which just don’t exist outside this role. This cartoon from the USA in the 1920s underlines this point.

Is this ‘reckless motorist’ an individual who just refuses to drive safely? Not at all. He’s a phenomenon, a new and terrifying set of possibilities which, as Uncle Sam sadly observes, is ‘here to stay’. The regulations – training, licensing, insurance, the RTA – to which drivers are subject exist to try to stop these possibilities from being realised. They exist to stop individual drivers from becoming a Driver, geared up for incomparable personal mobility but also primed for letting loose extreme anger and aggression while behind the wheel of a 100mph+-capable tonne of metal.

Further, along with the possibilities for experiencing aggression and rage which are uniquely possessed by Drivers, driving also brings new forms of shame, humiliation and disappointment. Here’s Marcuse again:

I ride in a new automobile. I experience its beauty, shininess, power, convenience – but then I become aware of the fact that in a relatively short time it will deteriorate and need repair; that its beauty and surface are cheap, its power unnecessary, its size idiotic; and that I will not find a parking place

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (1964)

Standing up against all of this, individual drivers who drive within the rules with care for the other human beings around them are actually achieving something quietly remarkable.

Like the individual bureaucrat in a repressive regime who sabotages the rounding-up of dissidents, they’re refusing to inhabit an anti-human role that society has made for them. But such struggles against the straitjacket certain roles fit us into can’t be always victorious. When I drive, sometimes I’m a Driver and other times I’m a cyclist and pedestrian who drives and looks out for other human beings on bikes, on foot and in motor vehicles. Like the gun owner who becomes, not just someone with a gun, but a Gun Owner when challenged, we who drive also become Drivers when we feel the need to defend what we take to be our entitlements, and in the process we vent the frustrations and humiliations that come with the experience of driving (cost, parking, being cut up, people not paying VED, congestion, parking, slow drivers, parking) on anyone who seems to be identifying us, as drivers – as individual humans who happen to drive – with The Driver, the dangerous, shaming, anti-social role that society has fitted out for us (and which it often actually requires us to adopt – in rural towns with no buses, out-of-town suburbs, and jobs with lengthy commutes expensive by train).

During the 1968 revolution, French anarchists used to say that violence against les flics was not the answer. Don’t target cops: you need to target the cop in your head. Live differently. Cars – like guns – make us different people with different possibilities. Make the cars different (speed limiters, for example) and the environments they move through different as well (slower, better public transport, more local amenities) and maybe people will become different as well. Get people out of cars more and this will be even more likely to happen.

Drivers aren’t really the problem, but ‘the Driver‘ definitely is.

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