Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Speed Kills

Get yourself a sweet Madonna
Dressed up all in lace upon a
Pedestal of abalone shell.

Goin' 90, I ain't scary
'Cause I got the Virgin Mary
Assurin' me that I won't go to hell.

(sung by Paul Newman in the film Cool Hand Luke)

The death of J.G. Ballard on 19 April put me in mind of many things, like his excellent short stories in a genre I have never liked - science fiction, his memoir Empire of the Sun, which is so much better than the mediocre film that Steven Spielberg made of it, and the subjects of his often extraordinarily unpleasant novels. One of them, Crash, published in 1973, was also made into a film by David Cronenberg. The main problem with the film was not that it was creepy and distasteful, but that it wasn't nearly creepy and distasteful enough to do the novel justice. Ballard had a talent for submerging the reader in alternative, often particularly unwelcome, experience. In Crash, he explored the experience of people who derive sexual excitement from car accidents, both vicariously and directly. And the more spectacular the crash, and the more crippling the injuries, the greater the sexual excitement.

In a sense, Ballard's characters had finally found a practical use - titillation - for one of the most routinely savage fixtures of modern life, which is brought home to us every year when the latest figures of roadway fatalities is released. Those statistics always scream for a solution, and every year there is a knee-jerk response from governments looking for ways to bring the numbers down. And every year the numbers remain the same, simply because the real reason for the carnage is never addressed.

When the first automobiles were sold to the public, their engines were too small and poorly designed for them to move much faster than the horse-drawn carriages they were meant to replace. But as the size of their engines grew and their numbers on public roadways increased, the first roadway accidents, with property damage and fatalities, began to show up on police blotters. And along with them, the first demands for preventive measures were made. What needed to be done was clear to manufacturers and legislators from the beginning: speed would have to be controlled - in other words, severely limited. (Inside city limits, for example, speed limits were equivalent to those in our school zones today, or around 25 miles per hour.) But when the first speed limit signs appeared, with what was deemed to be acceptably safe standards, another outcry arose - this time from the drivers themselves. Their objections were that the speed limits were far too low for their vehicles to manage even in high gear and that it was taking them too long to reach their destinations. So automobile manufacturers, drivers, legislators, and police came to an agreement (while necessarily avoiding the exact words): speed is more important than human life.

So the next time you go for a joy ride, remember all those brave citizens who paid the ultimate price for your right to put your pedal to the metal. Our age shows no signs of wanting to repeal its preference of velocity over humanity.

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