All entries for Sunday 09 December 2007

December 09, 2007

Motorways, Speed, Ecology and Climate Change

Motorways, Speed, Ecology, Climate Change

White Van Man

White Van Man: Myth or Monster? Well the Drivers don't think they are monsters, but no stereotype without fire! (What's wrong with hybrid metaphors?)

(See the Department of Culture (DCMS) Icons site


I'm currently in the sad situation of driving around 900 miles per week in term-time with much of this done on the M40. I'm amazed at how often the motorway becomes blocked either by pure weight of traffic or because of "incidents". For the expression "incident" term read accident - often a bad one. I have certainly come around to wondering when I will be involved in an 'incident'. It certainly doesn't take much. 

Increasingly it seems to me  as though there is a collective denial going on about the state of the driving culture on the motorways today. A quick 'Google' (yes I know making a verb out of it is horrible but...).  If the trains had anything like this number of accidents then nobody would travel on them or there would quite rightly be a national outcry. 

It is clear that there is a dominant culture of driving which seems to control our attitude to motorway driving. The quotation below is a fine example of the sort of laissez faire individualistic approach followed by many particularly: 'white van man'; the rep who now seems to drive a diesel Passat rather than Mondeo / Vectra; the snotty exectutive in Audi / BMW.

There are a massive range of issues which emerge from Britain's current culture of the motorway, speed & safety, efficiency and effectiveness and of course climate change and profligate use of natural resources. Underlying all this is a culture developed in the networked society of speed. Everything it seems must must be done more intensively and intensely yet in reality this is  unproductive and therefore inefficient in pure capitalistic terms.

T his article will be developing the arguments that there are better ways of doing things.

Pomposity & the Culture of Lawbreaking

Pompous Couple

Now you could argue that the speed limit is 70mph so why should anyone need to overtake the middle lane driver. Well its now accepted, even by the police, that average motorway speeds are around 80mph, with quite a lot of cars travelling in excess of 80mph. It's up to the individual driver how fast they go, so let them do what they want but observse basic motorway rules and use the middle and outside lane for overtaking. (My emphasis) (

Whatever one thinks about this comment it is hard to disagree with the idea that the police largely accept that most people will travel over the speed limit most of the time.  I have tried travelling at a variety of speeds to test out the different experiences, whilst motorways are inherently dynamic and no two trips will be the same there does seem to be some evidence which goes beyond the anecdotal. It would be interesting to research it properly.

In my experience of travelling where possible at 69-70 MPH almost every car overtakes you as well as the vast majority of vans and quite a lot of light lorries as well. Travelling at around 65 MPH almost every single car and van will overtake you as well as the occassional larger lorry. Most lorries seem to be going between about 57-63 MPH.

Lorries on the inside lane travelling at the above mentioned speeds are frequently what causes the problem alluded to by Mr Pomposity quoted above.  In reality it often seems to be more dangerous and more stressful to be trying to travel slowly on the motorways. When one is going even at 70-73 to go into the slow lane in a fairly large gap between lorries is the 'correct' thing to do. However ,it is a very stressful business trying to get out of this again precisely because of the Mr. Pomposities of this world who want to whizz past but do not have the driving foresight or manners to allow people back into the middle lane again so that you can get around the lorry. As a result of these bad manners and lack of ability to read the road people end up defaulting and going into the middle lane unecessarily. Yes I get annoyed at this and sometimes it is entirely unreasonable with no traffic in the inside lane for a considerable distance. However these are fairly rare cases - much rarer than the Mr. Pomposities. 

In reality the Mr Pomposities are breaking the law and they are also being extremely selfish and paying no attention to the extra damage being caused to the environment.

Arguably there has been a change for the worse on Britain's roads where people are more ill mannered, more selfish and less aware either of other drivers or of more general issues such as global warming.  The attitude of Mr. Pomposity is one of blame the victim yet he would be the first to cry foul if caught by a speed camera!!!

I have been caught twice by cameras once was rather unreasonable nevertheless I'm totally in favour of speed cameras. On roads such as the A45 from Coventry to Brirmingham it has brought down the maximum average speed and the car journey between the two cities is now a pleasant one. Before speed cameras it never used to be!.

The Boneheads of the world still consider they have a god -given entirely machismo right to speed about when ever they feel they want to. Take a look at this website for boneheads if you don't believe me!

The whole of the site is an encouragement to break the law in a violent way. Well I certainly don't want these people driving anywhere near me! Take a look at this encouragement to break the law. Arguably the site owner should be taken to court. If it was child pornography they would be, yet encouraging people to drive recklessly and vandalise public property has a blind eye turned to it. Is there a conspiracy between these people and the police?  

Update - I've been informed that the above information is incorrect. When an offence has been recorded the pictures are stored in control box located near the camera until the memory becomes full then all the pictures are downloaded to the police at once, therefore unless you happened to be caught when the memory is nearly full its possible to destroy the evidence before it gets downloaded. (Extract from the above cited website).

Number of Accidents

Lorries in Motorway Accident

Motorway Police
                                       motorway Death

Probably most of us are unaware of the number of accidents on motorways. whilst individual incidents come up on the news the overall picture is rarely discussed. Here news coverage of treansport issues should be changed to make us all aware of the seriousness of the situation. There is little doubt that the emergency services have a good idea of this. Clearly  the cost of dealing with all this is huge for the emrgency and health system and of course every time the traffic flow is disrupted there is a huge loss of productivity.  Oh yes there is a massive human cost as well but this doesn't seem to matter to policy makers: ITS THE ECONOMY STUPID!! 

Of the 4,500 incidents the officers deal with each month on the M1, M6, M69 M45 and A42 in the East Midlands, around 200 of these are vehicles stopping on the hard shoulder when they haven't broken down. (My emphasis) (

When You Get a "Good Idea" Someone has always Had it Before :-(

Well, my 900 miles of driving a week has led me to spend some time pondering on what would be a more effective method of transport. Having seen the TV programmes by the visionary architect Will Alsop  playing with the idea of developing linear cities, his discussion of the use of coaches turned my mind to making the most of the coach. Establishing coach interchanges at motorway junctions to develop an infrastructure and so on. Well in my many hours of listening to Radio 4 I heard George Monbiot (who else?) taliking about this very thing. Well good for him I thought this is going on the blog even if it isn't media / film studies.

You can find some blog discusion about it here:

Well the original idea has been accredited to Storkey

Storkey’s key innovation is to move the coach stations out of the city centres and onto the junctions of the motorways. One of the reasons why long coach journeys are so slow in the UK is that in order to create a system - which allows passengers to transfer from one coach to another - they must enter the towns along the way, travelling into the centre and out again. In the rush hour, you might as well walk.

Below is the argument for effectiveness. To this I would add I could get some marking and reading done on a comfortable coach. If we start translating these figures into GDP the nation as a whole would become far more productive whilst minimising resources.  

The M25 has 790 miles of lanes. If these are used by cars carrying the average load of 1.6 occupants, at 60mph its total capacity is just - wait for it - 19,000 people(5). Coaches travelling at the same speed, each carrying 30 passengers, raise the M25’s capacity to 260,000(6). Every coach swallows up a mile of car traffic. They also reduce carbon emissions per passenger mile by an average of 88%(7). So one of the key tasks for anyone who wants to unblock the roads while reducing the real social costs of carbon must be to make coach travel attractive.

Monbiot also discusses how hopeless the coach system is at the moment. This is an argument which could easily be extended to the state of public transport as a whole. The level of service is very time consuming and inconvenient as well as expensive. Even with fuel costs at around £1.04 per litre the time saved and the weekly outlay is far less than using train, there is also a much better chance of getting to work on time in my experience of trying to commute by train.

The Culture of Speed and Speed Enforcement

The quotation from Mr. (I assume) Pomposity above and the Laissex-faire attitude to speed and speed limits is unacceptable. Not only is the carbon output considerably higher when travelling at higher speeds, this is unsafe and it also contributes to bottlenecks and blockages.

The figures on the higher levels of carbon output at higher speeds are incontrovertable so let us move on to the safety issue. Here we can think about why people do not travel in the slow lane when technically they could and should as Mr. Pomposity points out.  

There is an unfortunate problem with car-makers publicity and indeed the fact that they still wish to cater for and create a macho attitude to the roads by associating overly powerful cars with the concept of "fun". This is like the racist or the male chauvinist and other types of bully who taunt their victims and then when challenged say: "it was just a bit of fun". This bullying attitude is disguised by a discourse of "freedom". Research into the history of car promotion and advertising rapidly shows that it has commonly been associated with "freedom". The attitude of car journalists is part of this dominant discourse which drives the male fantasy of cars and freedom. When researching cheap and reliable and economical cars I came across a review of the diesel Polo 1.4 which more or less accussed the car of being comfortable. Well my wife has one - it is comfortable economic over long distances and it is good to drive. I want to get the Blue motion model which apparently can do around 88 MPG on a motorway cruise. I will be able to have some fun with the money saved on petrol!

But looking at the VW publicity material just for Polos shows how the dominant discourse works: 

Polo GTI

A bit of textual analysis on this advertising is required. Red clearly has connotations of "red-blooded" i.e. passionate and impetuous often associated with particularly retro constructions of masculinity. The angle of framing of the photgraph tries to give a more dynamic feel to the car.

VW Blue Motion

Volkswagen has introduced the extremely economical Polo BlueMotion in Germany, the most economical car of its class in Europe.

The fact of the matter is VW and other car manufactures want to have it both ways. Of course they make more money on the faster cars and this is a way into the male pocket. More powerful cars are associated with status and male success. If everybody was driving one of these at legal speeds the motorways would become unblocked and there would be an immediate fall in carbon emissions.

What Policies Do We Really Want?

Double headed speed cameras

Until there is a massive change in the 'culture of speed' more of these is a necessity

If enough people shout about it then government will change its policies. There is no doubt that New Labour has been entirely pusillanimous about climate change when it comes to transport policy, but his pusillanimity is partially because not enough people demand change. Organisations such as the AA claim to speak for many drivers when in fact they should stick to offering a breakdown service. In fact they are now a company which relies upon a culture of motoring so they have a strong vested interest. 

  1. In the medium term establishing a far better coach infrastructure should be developed. This could probably be done along one motorway as a pilot project to test out the issues
  2. Far more speed cameras should be introduced
  3. The police need to be more proactive against speeding
  4. Websites which are an incitement to break the law should be closed down and their operators banned from driving for 5 years!
  5. Car publicity should be subject to re-emphasis in its vocabulary which empahsises speed
  6. Government needs to increase dramatically the road tax on higher emission vehicles
  7. Car publicity must make the CO2 parameters much clearer. Volkswagen itself can boast of 99 grams / Km in the Blue Motion and then 186 G/Km for the GTI above. In other words nearly twice as much. Ridiculous!!
  8. Government should make more ecologically effective vehicles much cheaper by significantly lowering the tax on them. Tax credits could also be given to those who purchase them. This would help increase the user base of these cars and speed up a change in car culture which is vital to the success of a low carbon community. 

But the final thing is we need to start discussing this sort of thing seriously around the dinner table, in staff rest rooms and canteens.  Start ridiculing the 'petrolheads', especially Jeremy Clarkson!!

Role of the Media

Populist TV programmes such as Top Gear get large audiences for the BBC but is this really what the BBC should be doing. Proper regualr programming on transport issues would be a much more useful way of spending licence payers money. Whilst I fully believe in the entertainment aspect of public sector broadcasting remit kow-towing to populist fantasy should be off the agenda.  

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