Our deathly cars and trucks

Our deathly cars and trucksI have often been curious about our attitude to deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents. If a shark kills a lone swimmer off North Cottesloe, we call for netting or shooting. If a cancer cluster is suspected in a building, the building is investigated and the site may be closed.

When the images from the Burnley tunnel showed thick plumes of smoke billowing from the outlet chimney I pondered this topic again. Perhaps we should just ban them—these deathly cars and trucks. Though we continue to reduce the road toll through stricter road rules and careful policing, motor vehicles persist in causing tragic deaths at a level not tolerated by disease or industrial accidents. In addition our awareness of their fatal impact on the environment grows apace.

If this smacks of zealotry perhaps it can be explained by the fact that I abandoned my little red car, Lucy, the other day. Paul, the 'auto-parts recycler' was rotund in that tight, shiny way which doesn’t seem overweight as much as filling his skin to the maximum. He flashed a gap-toothed smile and offered me $10 for every year that I had benefited from Lucy’s hospitality and hard work and I accepted his offer. I hope other elderly Festivas benefit.

I had driven Lucy over dusty outback tracks and muddy country roads, swung along freeways and meandered through cities. As I am a peripatetic person, she had been a companion as constant and almost as long-lived as the elderly dog who continues in my company.

Despite my grief, the demise of Lucy also offers new opportunities. I had been toying with the idea of giving up my car for some time and now I was faced with making this a reality. I had already committed myself to using public transport regularly, encouraged by my local council’s innovative scheme to reward drivers who take less frequent ‘drive alone’ trips.

Although I will have occasional access to a shared car, I have purchased a yearly ticket which also offers the possibility of discounts from a commercial car sharing company. Their compact cars can be picked up and dropped off around the city.

For commuting, I can choose between bus or tram, generally favouring the tram. Public transport provides me with more opportunities to read, and to delight in observing fellow travelers. The day I left my car at the wrecker’s, I caught buses across the Northern suburbs with senior Italian women, hair dyed the same rich shade of auburn. On my afternoon tram, a young man opposite was actively listening to a CD. He vigorously strummed his air guitar, swept an air keyboard and thumped air drums while singing in a breathy whisper.

Our deathly cars and trucksThere is also the comfort that I am contributing a little less to greenhouse gas and assisting the cooling of the planet. John Howard recently declared that love of cars was quintessentially Australian. This seems true even though the iconic Kingswood of yesteryear is replaced by a shiny Japanese four wheel drive as the family car of choice. I admit I share this love and will continue to enjoy the open road and an unknown itinerary in a borrowed or hired vehicle. Unfortunately Howard did not go on to suggest that tempering this love and making our transport decisions more consciously will need to become habitual for us all.

Personally, I realise that I’ll need to acquire patience to wait for late trams at windy stops and tolerance for the foibles and personal hygiene of fellow travelers. When these challenges rankle, I remind myself that I see more of the world from a tram seat than from Lucy’s cosy capsule or bury myself in my book. I also find that pondering and reflection are easier when you are not gripping a steering wheel in a stream of traffic.

And this is salutary: to slow down seems like a cultural imperative, not just to aim for slow food but slower lives. Less haste and more time for wondering is something many of us yearn for as we are baffled by the ceaseless flow of information in which wisdom is hard to discern.

The lost lives, mangled metal and billowing smoke of the Burnley tunnel accident may offer another signal. I am sure many Melbournians were forced to change their commuting options for at least a day or two and appreciated the benefits and challenges of more collaborative transport. My decision to forsake my car was not strictly voluntary, yet if others can choose such opportunities we may achieve several goals: reducing tragic deaths, offering us time for personal restoration and helping to grant our globe its reprieve.



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