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I like cars. Don’t care that I know very little about how they work; or that I can’t take one apart and put it back together again. I just like driving.
‘Car’ was my first word (in Danish though). Instead of dolls, which I absolutely loathed, I had a cardboard carton full of matchbox cars – my favourite being a metallic purple Porsche, although I quite liked the black London taxi too. I drove them around on the floor, made stunt courses for them, and simply liked to have them and hold them.
(I also had a fine collection of toy guns, swords and other weapons, and enjoyed tying my friends up with rope – but that’s probably a psychoanalysis session for another day. Or never.)
When I was 14, I had a boyfriend who was a real car enthusiast, and he taught me how to recognise pretty much every make and model of car inhabiting UK roads. I realise that sounds a bit geeky, but I rather liked this new knowledge, and I have now passed it on to my kids. If there was a traffic incident, we’d make good witnesses anyway.
Reaching my 17th birthday and receiving my provisional driving licence was hugely exciting for me. I seem to remember pestering my dad to take me driving on the first available Sunday after my birthday. We went to the local train station car park, which was completely empty. (Remember those days? When the weekend was actually a time for resting and relaxation??)
He showed me how to get the clutch and accelerator to ‘bite’, and then he put his seat back, and had a post-lunch nap. I fooled around, trying to master a smooth gear change, and summon up the courage to go into third gear.
Again, although my dad was not the most reliable of men, he was fabulously laid-back about things like this. Where most parents would be tense and hyper-controlling, he explained that a car is designed to move forward, and the only thing we had to do, as drivers, was control its speed and direction. Good advice that.
He actually slept too, so I can’t have been that awful.
My first car was a Mitsubishi Colt Tredia. We’d owned it from new, but by the time I started driving it, the body work had started to rust a little, and the dark red paint was dull. However, like many Japanese cars from that era, the engine was an absolute gem. That Mitsubishi was the most responsive and exciting car I have driven, to this day. It was hard to beat me when the traffic lights turned green.
(Yes, yes. I know that drag-racing at traffic lights is frowned upon these days. I’ve grown out of it now. Anyway, my Honda Jazz isn’t up to it…)
It was a trusty car, and I was so sad when it rusted away almost to nothing. I bet that engine would still be going strong now, if it had been placed in a new body.
Since then, I have owned a Proton (Mitsubishi engine, but tinfoil body – it would dent if you breathed on it), a Honda Civic (fantastic, reliable car, and SO comfortable), a Mitsubishi Carisma (an attempt to relive the glory days… but no), and then several generations of solid, reliable, excellently designed, economical, mechanically undernourished Honda Jazzes. I do like my current car, but there are hills near our house which I dread tackling in it, because I end up in 1st gear, being overtaken by elderly pedestrians.
Anyway. As I said, I love cars. But I don’t like what happens to some people when they get inside their cars and start driving.
These days, viral videos of screaming men and women, hanging out of their cars, hurling filthy abuse or even physical objects at each other are two a penny – they pop up every day. We are anaesthetised to the drama, the horror and the sheer wrongness of road rage.
What happens to some perfectly ordinary people when they sit down, buckle up and start driving? What makes some of them lose their minds? React in a way they wouldn’t dream of reacting usually?
I observed a nasty piece of work in a white van (sorry, but it was) tailgating another car yesterday. He was so close to the car in front, there can’t have been more than half a metre between them, even though they were driving at a good 40mph. I don’t know what the other car had done to anger the WVM but how could it possibly warrant such a flagrant invitation to disaster? The senseless thing is that a crash would punish them BOTH. There’s no reason or rationale here – it’s the mindless anger of an aggravated swarm of wasps.
Once, many years ago, when I had only been driving for 3 or 4 years, I parked my car in a very small space outside a shop. I tried to be careful opening my door, but it slipped out of my grasp and gently knocked the car next to me. There was no damage.
As I locked up my car, I became aware of a man getting out of the car and facing me. He launched straight into full red-rag mode – yelling at me for ‘smashing’ into his car door, calling me disgusting names and jabbing his finger into my face like man in a broken elevator.
I fell apart. I had never, in my sheltered life, been spoken to in such a manner. Although I apologised immediately, he couldn’t stop shouting at me. His eyes were bulging with rage, his thin face hectic and pink; spit flew as he spoke, and the cords of his neck were standing out so prominently, I could have snipped them with a pair of scissors. The reaction was totally out of proportion to the catalyst. He was temporarily insane – clinically insane.
I don’t know what image you see in your head when you picture this man. Let me enlighten you.
He was clean shaven, clean cut, dressed expensively in chinos and tailored shirt. His car was one of those boring, executive mid-range saloons. He was probably an accountant or similar. His natural habitat was probably a country club, gastro pub, and a 4 or 5 bedroomed house on the new luxury estate. He probably never used the ‘f’ word in front of his wife and kids. Excuse the assumptions.
I couldn’t believe how crushed and scared I felt. Why wasn’t he stopping? Why was he behaving, utterly contrary to most British folks, in such a confrontational way?
Eventually, I got angry too.
Between sobs I asked him, “What’s wrong with you? Do you speak like this to other people too?”
That question seemed to cut through the red mist, and he stopped. I saw the fury draining from his eyes, and it was one of the most peculiar and alarming things I’ve ever seen – as if he’d been injected with a potent drug. He shook his head a little, and then looked at me – at ME. Saw that I was very young, very scared and in tears. He looked a little horrified with himself, and apologised.
His excuse was that his car had been damaged in an accident, and had only just returned from the garage that day. That was the reason for his overreaction.
It wasn’t an overreaction though. It was pure, temporary madness. I believe he might have done something a lot worse in that state.
Thankfully, the situation deflated and he quickly got in his car and drove away, but I was left with a sick, heavy feeling which lasted for weeks. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe how quickly my ordered, tidy life had transformed into a nasty, lawless nightmare from which I might not have escaped. I realised bitterly that, although we floated around in our self-satisfied, oblivious little bubbles – the bubble only gave us the illusion of being safe. And the bubble could pop at any time.
Maybe cars give us a sense of power that we don’t deserve – rather like a superhero’s talismanic outfit and cape. Some of us are recklessly galvanised when we wield speed and status. We forget that we are all fragile, vulnerable humans – whether we drive steroid-pumped flat-bed trucks or diminutive Smart cars. We forget that a car is a way of getting from A to B, not a weapon that we control at our whim.
In our crazy, stressful world we need to pick our battles – and none of them should ever involve a car.
Wherever you’re going this weekend, be happy and be safe. x