Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blame the car, not the driver

The Ford Falcon GTHO Phase III was the kick-arse performance car of the 1970s. Pretty much a race car civilized a bit for the street, it could rocket to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. The car did not have mass appeal, however, and was produced in limited numbers.

Cars have come a long way since then: with better suspensions and tyres cars handle much better; and evolving engine technology now enables even small four cylinder motors to produce huge amounts of power. For example: the GTHO's 5.7 litre V8 produced approximately 285 kw compared to the 195 kw produced by a 2.5 litre 4 cylinder Subaru WRX. The Subaru is also quicker, going from standstill to 100 km/h in 5.3 seconds. The on average performance of today's cars is streets ahead of those back in the 1970s, and improving every year. And because tyres and suspensions are much improved it's now much easier to keep cars under control.

Many people object to the mass availability of high performance cars, the ABC's Jonathan Green putting much of the blame for the tragic crash that killed five people at Mill Park on the Ford XR6 driven by 19-year-old probationary driver Steven Johnstone. Green is not at all happy with the media's coverage of the crash:

The National Rifle Association defence has been getting a fair trot in recent days as the tabloids run and run with last weekend's quintuple road death in Melbourne's north.

Cars don't kill, apparently. People do.

As is the case with handguns, most would agree that it's more normally a combination of the two.

Still, it suits the tabloid agenda of serial unease at youthful exuberance to run the line that the kids are basically to blame, not the gleaming, throbbing, high octane machines they drive.

Watch the story sequence over this week, with the slow drip of prejudicial evidence ranged against the dead driver: the speeding prior, the suggestion that alcohol might be involved, while all the while the papers and TV news wring out the tearful grief of the families and friends.

No mention of the Ford XR6 in question, which might have the odd prior itself.

Having shifted blame from the driver to the car, Green makes this paradoxical observation:

The XR6 Turbo is probably the fastest Australian performance car. It can move from 0-100km/h in 5.1 seconds and race a quarter mile in 13.4 seconds.

If you've got a car that can do that, and you're on a straight stretch of road in the early hours ... what are you going to do? Honestly? Floor it. That's why it's there. And if your car rattled apart over 80 rather than slipping throatily into second, would that not make you somewhat safer?

There's a strong element of blame shifting or denial in all this surely. Conspiracy theorists might suggest that a media that earns good weekly money from the auto industry is hardly likely to take it to task. It's probably closer to the truth to say that the media shape these events, not as reflections of any objective reality in all its facets, but as reflections of their own needs and prejudices. In their hands this early morning tragedy becomes just another story of wild adolescence beaten up with a dash of road toll crisis (never mind that our roads are safer than they have ever been).

Hang on, in Australia a 19-year-old is an adult, not an adolescent. And despite the ever increasing number of young adults driving high performance cars, our "roads are safer than they have ever been." If the cars are at fault, you'd reckon the number of young adults killed would skyrocket.

Green's article is classic Lefty blame shifting. The Mill Park accident was, like most such tragedies, the result of a very unfortunate sequence of events, not least of which was some very poor decision making. With the revelation that the driver, with a blood alcohol reading of .19, was almost four times over the limit, perhaps Green will now shift some of the blame to alcohol producers.


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