Laying waste to haste when society wants dash

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday 9 November 2002

Author: HUGH MACKAY

SPEED. The very word excites us. Faster, faster, faster: it's the mantra of the age, the ultimate goal of an anti-contemplative society, the sine qua non of life in the modern world.

Who doesn't want to get where they're going as quickly as possible? Why would anyone take the scenic route, adding an hour to the journey, when the expressway promises speedier dispatch? (Question: what are you going to do with that hour you saved?)

Fast food, instant coffee, express checkout, quick fix, snap frozen, speed reading, the fast lane ... why are we always in such a hurry? How did “instant gratification” graduate from jokey insult to legitimate motivation? Patience was once a virtue; now, in everything from baking bread to personal relationships, impatience is the order of the day.

“More haste, less speed” once seemed wise advice; now we'll take more haste and more speed, thanks, with a mobile in one hand and a burger in the other.

We lavish praise on those who do things quickly, even things that should perhaps be done slowly, like building a house or writing a book. (Is “slowcoach” ever intended as a compliment?) Even when we exercise, a short jog seems more attractive than a long walk, and a quick burst in the gym might be better than both: if you can cram your fitness program into half an hour a week, why not? Speed is of the essence.

Pity help you if you drive below the speed limit, or pull away from the traffic lights a second or two after they've turned green. Everyone's in a hurry. Speed limits aren't treated as “limits”; we interpret them as meaning, “This is the speed you should drive at, so keep up.”

“Speed kills” say the safety signs. Ah, yes, but speed also thrills. Who can argue with the proposition that going fast is more fun than going slow? Pushing your car through a corner, especially on a country road, gives you an adrenaline kick that more cautious drivers never experience.

No wonder road safety campaigners have such a tough time convincing us to slow down. “We have got to make speeding as socially unacceptable in this decade as drink-driving became in the last decade,” says Harold Scruby, the chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia.

Road deaths have been drastically reduced over the past 20 years, but there are worrying signs of an upturn in the figures this year, and a widespread conviction among the experts in the field that speed is still the No1 killer.

But how do you encourage drivers, especially young drivers, to slow down, when everything in our culture is telling them to speed up? Fast is good, slow is bad, so slow down? I don't think so.

Scruby's drink-driving analogy is a good one, because we have managed to discourage people from drinking and driving. We did it by intervening directly in the driving environment via the introduction of random breath testing. Suddenly, drink-drivers were at risk not only of having an accident caused by their impaired faculties, but also of being caught driving with too much alcohol in their blood. Gradually, the idea of drink-driving became disgraceful.

We haven't gone far enough, of course: we could introduce technology into cars that made it almost impossible for an inebriated driver to start the engine, but RBT was a huge step in the right direction.

Any serious program designed to change drivers' behaviour must focus on modifying the environment rather than merely changing attitudes. (Attitudes change more easily in response to changed circumstances than in response to even the most sophisticated propaganda.) Speed cameras are therefore a useful innovation, though we go to such lengths to warn drivers when they are approaching speed cameras, they are more like intelligence tests than speed traps.

Much more could be done. For instance, why is the speedometer on my car calibrated to 240 kilometres an hour? When I'm travelling at 100, the needle is still less than halfway around the dial, which carries a powerful implicit message of potential. Why do we allow cars to be sold with such seductive speedos?

And why aren't cars fitted with a piercing alarm a bit like a smoke detector that goes off if the needle reaches some predetermined limit? People could still drive dangerously, of course, but the thought of that alarm going off would certainly restrain us from pushing the upper limit.

The great paradox of modern motoring is that while road safety authorities try to convince us that, in the words of the current safety slogan, “There's no such thing as safe speeding”, car makers and highway engineers seem determined to convince us of the very opposite. Which of them is right?