Fifty years ago, private car ownership was growing rapidly, and public transport was losing its dominant role. The process seemed quite natural and, on the whole, a good thing. In the 1960s, British Railways cut hundreds of lines and stations. It was painful for small rural communities at the time, but, as car ownership spread, they adjusted to the situation. Governments were happy to see the hugely expensive state-owned railway wither away.
Roads became over-crowded, of course, and the solution to that problem was simple – build more roads. A massive new motorway around Outer London, the M25, was opened in 1986. However, this provided a dramatic example of a phenomenon which had been noticed by experts many times before: building new roads appears to generate new traffic. The M25 was overloaded immediately, and now it is the site of some of the country’s worst traffic jams almost every day.
It has long been noted that car driving has some strange psychological effects on human beings. The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLu-han said: “The car has become the carapace, the protective and aggres-sive shell, of urban man.” People who are normally quiet and pleasant are often transformed when they get behind the wheel of a car. As in the R. L. Stevenson story, the good Mr. Jekyll becomes the evil Mr. Hyde. The idea used to be a common theme for comedians. By the 1990s, however, it was no longer a joke, and a new phrase was coined: road rage. More and more often, people were getting out of their cars and starting fights with other drivers; murders have been committed. Hours of isolation, competition and frustration, while breathing in exhaust fumes, are obviously not good for people.
Road accident figures, on the other hand, have not increased with the number of vehicles on the road; in fact they have decreased. Various reasons are suggested for this: modern cars have better lights and brakes, and the culture of driving has become more mature. One obvious reason is the slowness of city traffic – nobody gets killed when the cars are standing still. Whatever the reasons, Britain has a better record than most European neighbours; the number of deaths per 10,000 vehicles is less than half that of France, for example.
Another significant factor is that seat belt laws for vehicle drivers and passengers are respected by almost everyone.
Britain is one of the few countries in the world (Japan is another) where cars drive on the left. It would be possible to change: they used to drive on the left in Sweden. But, like Japan, Britain is an island nation, so there is not much road traffic across its borders. In any case, many British people are rather proud of little oddities like this. There are no plans to change.