COMMENT & ANALYSIS: The problem of removing agency from drivers in reporting, especially reports on cyclist-driver collisions, is often highlighted by cycling advocates.
Time and time again, incidents are described in such a way that it sounds as if the car has a mind of its own. The driver is so far removed from the events described you can imagine them waking up, checking the news and roaring: “My car did WHAT?!” before racing off to stare in horror at the empty space where last night they’d left the offending vehicle before going to sleep.
I don’t think we’re ever going to win this fight. Perhaps, instead, we must go a step in the other direction, and acknowledge that a person in a car, van, or truck is not the same as a person outside such a machine. The human being inside a car is the same as Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit.
Drivers experience their vehicles as extensions of themselves. The person sitting in a car has nothing short of superpowers: they have superhuman speed, a superhuman scream, and an exoskeleton that has superhuman resistance to damage. Modern vehicles go a step further, providing cameras to allow superhuman surround-sight, and projection of information onto the windscreen reminiscent of, again, the figures and lines overlaying Iron Man’s visual impression of reality.
Inside the car, the driver pays a price for their superhuman capabilities. They are cut off from audio input, their padded shell designed to shut out sounds from outside. They are cut off from smell, from tactile sensation such as wind or rain on their face.
What sensory input may come from contact with the surface that supports them is muted by suspension in the chassis and the seat. Such severance from reality has consequences. People encased in cars and trucks are psychologically distant from the world around them, and their behaviour is affected. The circumstances are a recipe for indifference and lack of empathy on the roads.
The habit of talking about cars or trucks doing this or that is natural, because when moving, the driver is no longer just a human being. They become something different, a cyborg whose behaviour is unavoidably affected by the addition of a mechanical body.
They become the brain inside a new creature that is more than its parts. A car by itself is incapable of action. But a human by itself is vulnerable, slow, and connected to their environment. Combined, the two become a wheel-borg with superhuman powers, and an inbuilt psychological distance from their environment that we need to start acknowledging in our road design, our policies, and the strategies we adopt to try to make our roads safer for everyone.
Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.