Roads and Highways


One of the things I most wanted to confront you yanks about was your appauling waste of resources, and flagrant disregard to our ecology.

I looked forward to tackling your arguments on global warming being a form or refraction and having little to do with CO2 emissions, of Ethanol being possibly worse for the environment than Unleaded fuel, and of natural landscapes such as alaska being descimated by scarring oil fields ripping through the beautiful landscape.

What I found though was a little unexpected, terribly complicated and very unsettling.

The US really is a different place to britain, and just because we (loosely) share a language, doesnt mean we are brothers. We have, in fact, been born on different sides of the same street, and even though we stand together and fight together, at times are as different as montagues and capulets. Never is it more apparent than with the use of oil, or specifically unleaded fuel.

Firstly, I will get on my high horse. In britain we tax all car fuels heavily so as to discourage the use of cars. We also have a car tax to help pay for the expensive upkeep of the road network. We have catalytic converters to ensure a minimal amount of CO2 emissions, and we have an MOT text annually for every car to ensure all emissions are down to a minimum. The MOT test also ensures that the car is completely up to safety levels, such as tyre tread, break efficiency, and various tests on bodywork, frames, axles and engine efficiencies. You can fail an MOT (and have your car taken off the road) for excessive rust.

We do these things because we recognise the danger that cars present, and we wish to minimise the amount of accidents we have. We also spend thousands of pounds in advertising campaigns advertising road safety encouraging slower speeds, avoiding fast breaking, encouraging watching the road etc. We have a written drivers test, involving a multiple choice questionaire and  a virtual reality hazard test.

The practical part of the examination involves an eyesight test, and a vehicle safety test, so you know where to put the oil in etc… before continuing with the actual driving test. You will be asked to prove you can complete emergency breaks, three point turns, reversing round corners, reverse parallel parking as well as showing you are a considerate and confident driver.

Its expensive, its  hard, and we often fail. Its meant to be like that so we realise the full responsibility of having what is effectively a weapon under our control.

You will lose your licence if you have no insurance, if you drive under the influence, if you speed consistantly, if you have no road tax disk, if you drive recklessly, if you are overloaded, if your vehicle is faulty in any way, and if the police stop you they are entitled to check every detail of the outside of your car, and book you for anything from faulty lights to low tyre pressure.

We have stringent laws because firstly it makes our cars easier to control and safer to drive, and secondly it makes them more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

Before I get all holier than thou, though I came to understand that in the US things are painfully different not because you dont believe in the tennets of safety and efficiency, but that you simply dont know how to go about starting.

For a start your cities are so spaced out that you need a car to get from one part to another, and boy what roads you built for the job. Giant eight to ten lane freeways taking you from the suburbs to the city centres. Built for purpose is the phrase used, and unlike the tight windey roads you find in the UK whos single lanes meander around villages and farms and rivers and woods, your roads dominate the countryside ripping through the dusty plains like nasca lines, creating a network of magnificent runways ready for the american mechanical caterpillar to take people to work and back again.

To imagine a world where cars are not the dominant species is to imagine a world of futility. The feckless tracks would be like a skeleton of some ancient dinosaur sprawled across the descolate terrain. You would be like the african tribespeople who carry baskets upon their heads just to collect your groceries from the local corner shop, or to get a chicken strip from your drive through Chick-fil-a.

Its not that Americans dont care about the environment, its just that to imagine a world with no cars is to reinvent the wheel.

As for the safety aspects us brits are used to. The US is based on a belief that everyone is responsible for their own actions. To tell an american that protection of its people is the job of the authorities is the same as to tell a lion the mobster thrown into his cage is not a suprise midnight snack. I can just see him raising an eyelid and with a stretch of his mighty claws purring the words…

“Suuuuure!”

Instead, the whole system is set up ready for litigation. You bump into me, well im gonna sue you, and if it turns out you had no tread on your tyres, well youre going to end up paying more…. Its a simple system, and it should work if it wasnt for the fact that most people cant afford to change their tyres when they need changing, or maintain their oil filters, or check their breaks or do the thousand other things needing to be done.

What starts off as being a world of choice ends up being choice for those that can pay, and risk for those that cant.

In the end it is no surprise that when petrol prices rise by 10c, the whole country goes into panic freefall. In a country that finds itself so stretched for money, be it because of doctors fees and medical bills, or munitians spending and securities taxes, every cent is hard earned and carefully spent, and change is often an unnecessary risk too far.

To see a way out of the sandstorm of problems climate change is causing the people of the US takes a minor miracle, and trying to convince them that reducing fuel emissions by using more efficient cars is like trying to convince a dog not to sniff butt. In the end, even if they do believe you, they cant do anything about it.

I learnt alot on my trip. I saw alot I didnt expect to see and heard alot I hadnt imagined people would say. Mostly though, I learnt that we are all reasonable people going through a different set of circumstances, and my hollier than thou, look down on you attitude wont help a single soul. We need solutions to tough problems, we need to listen to each other alot more, to understand each others situations and consider each others dilemas. We need patience and empathy. And we need to talk more, we need to be aware that we can be wrong, that others can do it better, and that we can learn from each other without saying, well thats okay for you, but its totally different here.

Mostly though, we need to stand up and have the grace and humility to say “I was wrong”

I was wrong.

I was wrong, but I’m learning.

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~ by eggplantinspace on May 20, 2009.

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