Deeper Read: Letting Go of the Wheel – Are We Ready?

6 March 2019
Driving Stock Photo

Photo by Maria Church

By Alix Palmer, Triple R social media volunteer

Growing up in rural New South Wales meant getting my driver’s license was non-negotiable. In a town where public transport consisted wholly of the school bus, driving was the ultimate rite of passage. It meant freedom, not only for me, but for my parents who chewed through their weekends driving me to soccer games, music lessons and birthday parties.

I still reflect fondly on those weekends just after I got my licence. Driving down to the beach with friends, blasting pop-punk music, and clambering sunburnt and sandy into the driver’s seat ­– confident I was finally in control of my life.

Of course, this story isn’t unique to my town or my family. Living in a country that is vast, geographically diverse and lacking large-scale public transport infrastructure means driving is a necessity for many of us. No wonder it’s become part of our national identity. Our cars, like many of our possessions, are an expression of ourselves – a signifier of wealth, status and even utility.

But these days driving feels a little less like freedom. Being stuck in city traffic is a very specific kind of hell – and it’s really no wonder 16 per cent of city commuters choose to cycle (City of Melbourne).

But, cycling deaths have almost doubled in the past year. To explain this startling statistic Peter Chambers (Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Justice at RMIT) and Tom Andrews (PhD student in law at the University of Melbourne) joined Kulja on The Grapevine late last year.

The crux of it, they say, is driver attitudes.

‘Roughly 90 per cent of what causes death on Australia’s roads is driver behaviour,’ they wrote in an article for The Conversation, and ‘inattention and aggression’ are the main culprits. When applied to the 1,222 road deaths reported by the Australian Automobile Association’s Benchmarking Report (for the period July 2017 ­to June 2018) it starts to become clear that drivers have some explaining to do.

As Chambers pointed out on The Grapevine:

‘If Qantas and Jetstar were pranging four to five planes a year, and […] those planes were being crashed because of how pilots were piloting, because [for example] they were on their phones, you would begin to ask basic and serious questions about that as a transport system.’

But getting drivers to change their behaviour isn’t easy. In an article entitled ‘Cars, bicycles and the fatal myth of reciprocity’ anthropologist Ashely Caruthers (ANU) explains:

‘In Australia ideas of maturity, freedom and autonomy are powerfully entwined with the mythos of the car [and] these “cultural preferences” are so strong that they often act to erase cyclists’ legal rights and status.’

What he is pointing to here is that while legally it may not be the case, culturally, many drivers feel an ownership over the road that causes them to act either aggressively or carelessly – that something ostensibly innocuous, such as a preference for driving, can lead to a hostile and dangerous environment for anyone who doesn’t bear the privilege of, or inclination towards, being behind the wheel of a car.

Road deaths aren’t the only downside to our love of driving. The same cars that summon visions of idyllic coastlines and tree-lined country lanes are limiting the lifespans of these scenes.

According to the Climate Council: ‘Australian cars emit roughly the same per year as Queensland’s entire coal and gas fired electricity supply.’ On a global scale cars and trucks are responsible for about a fifth of global carbon emissions (Dalia Research). This makes cars such a big contributor to our climate crisis that some scientists are saying the modern automobile simply has to die.

Tailpipe emissions are also taking their toll on our bodies.

According to the EPA, ‘Motor vehicles are the major source of urban air pollution.’ In fact, despite positive changes following the introduction of unleaded fuel, cars remain a huge source of pollutants. In Melbourne they account for more than 70 per cent of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides in our air.

In an article for The Conversation, climate scientist Robyn Schofield and Professor of Urban Transport and Public Health Mark Stevenson explain why these pollutants are a cause for concern: ‘Air pollution is associated with cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, dementia, cancer, pregnancy complications and adverse birth outcomes.’

When you consider these negative consequences, along with the rising financial cost of owning and running a vehicle, it seems almost bizarre that we love driving so much.

Even if we’re willing to acknowledge the adverse effects of driving on our communities, taking action isn’t always easy. People need to get around – and while some people have the ability to walk or ride, many others are left with public transport options that are inaccessible, unaffordable or simply unavailable.

Enter: the electric vehicle.

You may have noticed electric vehicles getting a fair bit of airtime lately. The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The ABC all reported on them in January alone. The general consensus has been that Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to access to, and infrastructure around electric vehicles. With calls on government to take actions such as ‘consumer incentives, emission taxes, [and] the construction of public vehicle-charging infrastructure’ (SMH).

All the positive press isn’t undeserved. A report (Advice on Automated and Zero Emissions Vehicles Infrastructure) released by Infrastructure Victoria late last year revealed transitioning to electric or ‘non-emissions vehicles’ could yield staggering results:

‘Depending on exactly how and when zero emissions […] technology rolls out, Victoria could realise some huge benefits including: 25 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions reduced [and] $735 million in health benefits.’

But cutting emissions is only one part of our transport problem. Transitioning to non-emissions vehicles, while good for the environment and our health, wouldn’t necessarily bring down the death toll on our roads.

If most deaths are due to the way drivers are driving, should we consider taking driving out of the equation altogether?

While the benefits of electric cars are being touted throughout the country, automated vehicles tend to be more contentious. There are many different reasons for this, ethical questions and cybersecurity being two of the biggest, and some are saying the technology is just not quite ready. But with GM (General Motors) making announcements saying they’ll have a ‘fleet of driverless taxis on the road in large cities by 2019’ the future is looking more certain every day.

Despite the roadblocks, the Victorian Government is at least looking into the benefits and costs associated with bringing them to the mainstream. The aforementioned report, Advice on Automated and Zero Emissions Vehicles Infrastructure, revealed benefits such as ‘91 per cent of congestion’ and ‘94 per cent of road accidents’ reduced.

However, the infrastructure costs are a different kind of staggering. Such as ‘$1.7 billion to upgrade mobile networks’, ‘$250 million for improved line markings on roads’ and ‘at least $2.2 billion for energy network upgrades.’ Almost definitely a hard sell for a public that’s still emotionally and culturally connected to driving.

Early last year Simone Pettigrew, a Professor in the School of Psychology at Curtin University, co-authored a study to collect data on attitudes towards driverless cars. She found that almost two thirds of people have either negative or neutral feelings about them. In her article for The Conversation she wrote:

‘Some 21 per cent thought there would be fewer crashes, but others (13 per cent) predicted more accidents on our roads. Virtually no-one mentioned increased mobility for the elderly or disabled, emission reduction or stress reduction. Not a single respondent reported that cyclists would be safer.’

Her findings aren’t surprising – at least to me.

I recently shared a BBC article with my colleagues entitled ‘Why you have (probably) already bought your last car’. The discussion that ensued was mostly centred around statements like, ‘But I love driving,’ and, ‘I’m not giving up my car,’ and an (arguably) unreasonable level of emotion around the issue.

While I don’t think automated vehicles are a blanket solution to our transport problems, I do think it’s time to start having meaningful conversations about the benefits and challenges of this new technology.

If companies such as Waymo, Tesla and Uber are determined to bring self-driving cars into the mainstream, refusing to talk about them won’t stop them from coming.

What it might mean is we don’t get to decide how they’re put into use, and who benefits from their introduction. Will they make our roads more accessible, safer and less congested? Or will empty cars clutter our roadways, only available to those with the resources to afford them? These are the questions we cannot afford to ignore.

Alix Palmer is one of the very rad people who volunteer creating social media and online content for Triple R. When she isn’t here, Alix volunteers as a non-fiction reader at Overland, and works in market strategy at La Trobe University.