Self pity, language and the Great British Motorist

It’s time to write again about the costs of motoring (no, not to its victims, just to car users), as we are in another spasm of a particularly unpleasant feature of car culture. This is the presentation of alleged motorist victimhood through the mangling and abuse of the English language. It’s worth examining this self-pitying culture as we have – as so often with “road safety” ideology and parts of car culture – an inversion of reality displayed to us.

According to Robert Halfon MP, families are being “crucified” by high petrol prices But should we see the Great British Motorist as Jesus nailed to the cross?

According to Halfon:

High petrol and diesel prices are crippling our economy. Many motorists now pay a tenth of their income just to fill up the family car, and millions of families are suffering. Businesses are under immense pressure, especially the road freight industry. But petrol and diesel are now so astronomically expensive; it is COSTING the government money. This is because fewer people can afford to drive, leading to lower tax revenues. Therefore, this petition calls on the government to: 1) Scrap the planned 4p fuel duty increases, which are scheduled for January and August 2012. 2) Create a price stabilisation mechanism that smooths out fluctuations in the pump price. 3) Pressure big oil companies to pass on cheaper oil to motorists. 4) Set up a commission to look at market competitiveness, and radical ways of cutting fuel taxes in the longer term”…

So what exactly is actually happening? While a well organised campaign is orchestrated to present motorists as having the status of an oppressed minority, with little or no opposition, a quick fact check should be in order.

  1. Over the New Labour years the costs of motoring fell dramatically.  While some price rises over the last few years may have slowed the overall reduction in the cost of motoring, overall the cost has fallen.
  2. By comparison – and I’m talking about before the current government’s austerity packages were introduced – over the same period other financial problems became worse. For example: a massive increase in the costs of housing, both for sale (pushing a generation into money down the drain in renting, and in renting itself. Or the loss of private pensions. Or the need to pay far more for university education. More recently, the freezing of public sector workers pay – to take, again, just one example – is hitting many “ordinary families” just as much, if not more.
  3. Then we have had numerous costings – using quite conventional methods of cost-benefit analysis, which normally tend to support the status quo – of the economic costs of motoring which far exceed the revenue raised from motoring.
  4. A lot of the costs of motoring could be easily reduced – and should be – by more careful driving (to reduce insurance premiums) and more fuel-efficient driving. Most motorists could reduce some of the mileage they do. Then there is selecting more fuel –efficient vehicles. Or car sharing. Or walking and cycling short journeys.

But ultimately, rational argument is of limited value. Even the Daily Mail, in a typical rant has to quote that: “the relative tax take has been going down for a while: for every pound drivers spend at the forecourt, about 60p is now going to the Treasury compared to around 80p in every pound between 2001 and 2003”. It won’t stop the flow of inverted reality. Facts are not relevant.

But let’s examine the language:

  • “Crucified. Crucifixion was a particularly nasty punishment, quite apart from the iconic suffering of Jesus. Is being nailed alive to a cross really the same as having to pay as much for driving as you did a few years ago? Or having to drive in a more fuel efficient way? Or driving carefully to bring your insurance down? Or maybe working out a way to drive 5 or 10% less miles to bring your costs down? The self-pity is, of course, a special feature of car culture. As one blogger notes, train fares are rising rather more than the cosst of motoring: somehow train passengers are not being “crucified”.
  • Astronomically expensive”. Not compared to the costs it incurs, even by conventional cost-benefit analysis. And the costs of motoring have declined not just  compared with inflation over the years since New Labour came to power, but compared to vital areas of expenditure such as housing, or compared to the decline in pensions in the private sector, to take just one example.
  • It is COSTING (note block letters) the government money”. What is actually costing the government money is the usual billions of road building expenditure. Or the costs to the NHS of the adverse health effects of mass car use. Or not getting enough revenue in because the taxation on motoring is not high enough – massively raising the cost of petrol  would be a great way of pushing those still driving into far more fuel efficient cars with more revenue to government as well as the other benefits arising.
  • Crippling the economy. That’s right: our disabled economy is in its wheelchair not because of the crises in finance capitalism, the collapsing Euro or any of that – it’s that motoring might not be getting progressively cheaper. That’s why “millions of families are suffering”.

But it isn’t. And this latest orgy of getting hold of the wrong end of the stick has to be seen for being just that. We do not have, “A War on the Motorist”. We have a war for the careless, rule and law –breaking motorist with a thoroughly inequitable system of funding transport choices

For if you have decided to become more and more car dependent – or just failed to question this process – anything that fails to fulfil ever more car dependency will disappoint.  Locked into the cycle of addictive behaviour, the feelings of victimhood – whatever the reality may be – are ever present.

I quote the blogger again: “Lowering fuel taxes may give a small amount of temporary relief to motorists who have no choice but to drive and are spending a lot of their income on fuel, but it will also disproportionately benefit motorists who are not very hard-pressed, choose to drive big thirsty cars and can well afford to fill them up. Also, taxes will have to rise elsewhere to compensate, at a time when there are calls to lower them to stimulate the economy.

Instead of debating the cost of fuel, which is largely out of the control of the Government, we should be debating how we manage down the use of fuel. Oil dependency is the underlying problem, and it’s what is delivering blows to the economy every time the underlying price of oil goes up”.

If your life, and your economy, is bound up with shifting more people and stuff further and faster, maybe the thing to do is to think about having different kinds of economy and ways of living. An abeyance of feelings of suffering and paranoia ( fed by endless descriptions of how you as a motorist are “hammered”, “punished”, “squeezed” etc.) would be just some of the benefits. Not to mention a rather more realistic view of the world, and less abuse of the English language.