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A British view of US auto-mania 

A local story of an incident that happened not too far from where I live made it all the way to the UK and was reported in the Guardian.

A woman from Summerville, South Carolina (Left.) was driving her own children and a neighbor kid to school.

As she neared the school she encountered a group of schoolchildren walking in the middle of the road. (There was no sidewalk on that particular street.)

She honked at them but they refused to move; so she drove into them, knocking down a 12 year old, two 13 year olds, and one 14. None were seriously hurt, three were treated on the scene, and one was taken to the hospital.

She told police, “I wanted to knock some sense into them.” (That statement sounds familiar.) When the story ran on my local paper’s website, I posted the following comment:

“This incident that involved children walking in the middle of the road, is exactly the same issue as cyclists on the road that everyone gets their shorts in an uproar over.

Even though kids can be annoying when they won’t move out of your way, you have to deal with it; you can’t go running them down.

They had a perfect right to be on a public street. It has nothing to do with the size of your vehicle, or whether you pay road tax; it is a basic human right to travel from A to B on a public highway.

It doesn’t matter if you are in a car, riding a bicycle, or walking; whoever was there first basically has the right of way.”

This woman made an extremely poor choice; she has been charged with four counts of first-degree assault and battery and could face up to ten years in jail. Would it have hurt her to drop her kids off at that point and let them walk the rest of the way to school?

It always amazes me, the sense of entitlement that car ownership invokes. A person would never push to the front of a line at a theatre or at the supermarket; or scream at people to “Hurry it up,” it would be considered the height of rudeness. Yet it seems perfectly normal for some to honk or yell at anyone impeding their rate of travel on a public street or highway.

The Guardian used this story in part to illustrate America’s obsession with the automobile. While I agree with that premise, the article is filled with extreme exaggerations, like stories of people shooting themselves in the foot to get a handicap parking spot.

It also seems a little strange coming from a British publication, as from what I hear and read the UK is fast approaching “Auto-mania” status itself.

The big difference is that the UK does not have the luxury of the amount of space the US has.

There are tiny villages in Britain where whole communities could quite easily fit in the area occupied by an average US supermarket or strip mall parking lot.

The Guardian points out that in the US, whole city blocks are devoted to car parking. This is true, and how often do you see any retail business parking lot more than half full; such a waste of space. And of course all this wasted space and urban sprawl means greater distances from our homes, to the store, or to our workplace, making automobile ownership a necessity for most people.

If Britain devoted as much space to the automobile as America does the entire country would be paved with concrete and asphalt. The UK should be grateful they did not have the luxury of space to waste; returning to a more sustainable lifestyle will be far easier than it will be for the United States. 

The Guardian also mentions that Americans used to laugh at the Chinese for the way they traveled to work by bicycle in their millions.

Now thanks largely to the outsourcing of our manufacturing jobs to countries like China, they have prospered, and Chinese workers are buying cars for the first time.

Now they are competing for the ever dwindling world oil supply, which will force the price up that the US consumer has to pay.

Other countries like India will be the next to follow and the situation can only get worse. The whole American lifestyle and the way its infrastructure is designed, has always revolved around the automobile and cheap gasoline.

I predict that before very much longer people will find themselves spending their entire salary to pay for, maintain, and fuel their car. They will be working to run a car that they need to get to work. It will no longer be viable for families to own two or more cars.

All of a sudden, people riding bicycles will not look so stupid.



Reader Comments (14)

With the recent disturbances to the Pax Americana in Arab countries, that day may come decades sooner than people thought...

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMr.S.

Great way of putting it Dave. Sometimes Western Justice just seems like the right way to go when dealing with people.

In our community a developer ruined open space for a shopping plaza that has sat vacant for going on 2 years now.

Makes you wonder.

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill

Nice article Dave.

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstephen_mc

Dave, really enjoy your blog. You're spot on w/ your comments on sprawl and automobile owner entitlement. In a similar vein, here's a good take on a story from my neck of the woods.


Stories like this really do give us a bad name in the world. Although, as recent events is Brazil show, it's not just here.

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBlind Pilot

At last week's N.C. Bike/Ped Safety Summit in Asheville, NC, one of the presentes from NC Dept of Transportation indicated that their research indicated that people begin to change their behaviors around transportation at a price point of $3.35 per gallon. I think it will be interesting to see how accurate that is and we're already beyond that price point here in Western North Carolina now. It prompted me to put finger to keyboard on the subject:


I think it is very realistic that in my lifetime people will be making massive choices between purchasing gasoline or buying other necessities. Maybe that's the glass is "half full" view but it sure seems like the process is escalating faster than people expected or hoped for.

- Zeke

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZeke

Oops... I meant glass is "half empty" in that last comment.

BTW, the local TV station just carried a story wherein the NC Petroleum Institute says that the rising crude oil prices could go on for weeks or months depending upon what happens in Libya.

Hopefully, we'll see many, many more people cycling and walking in the very near future. (Now, that's the "half full" perspective...)

- Zeke

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZeke

Perhaps in the second half of this century it will be the turn of the Chinese and Indians to wheeze around the carpark with their vast wobbly bottoms - while thin Europeans and Americans cycle along carless roads on titanium bicycles.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Rawlins

Motormania means growing demands for FREE parking and that requires block after block of large lots. Rarely full, these lots provide a cheap call option for owners and real estate taxes are usually low. What a mess is created when we continue to support and subsidize these self destructive dependencies. How many other maniacs are in the making? Another result, pedestrians are becoming an endangered species.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJack

I have similar issues with motor mania. We need to stop the tax breaks, subsidies, for parking in many places. We need to change the thinking to investing in transit and subsidizing highways.

I was reading one of my liberal screeds and there was a telling statistic. The current hike expected on gas this year will be an additional 'tax' of 100 billion dollars for US consumers. The tax holiday reducing our Social Security payments this year is 120 billion dollars. Poof! There went your tax break.

My cycling around and to and from work saved me about $90 in Feb when gas was about $3.30 here, and that wasn't full time commuting either.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

I think it will come to it that people are working just to pay for the car that gets them to work. It is already the case that so many people are working just to pay the mortgage. There is precious little room left in the "American Dream" for any actual pursuit of dreams.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTodd S.

We missed a golden opportunity after 9/11 to start raising the gas tax here. Would have slowed imports, created infrastructure money and or helped pay for the wars we stuck our selves with. We would have been much closer to carbon reduction also. But no, we'll now be hobled trying to get out of a recession no tax increase but fuel will cost more and the money will go to other countries hurting our own economy.

March 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

I see certain shifts in behavior and understanding with motoring in the UK. Firstly that the motor is seen as "essential", when in fact this is not often true. Secondly many motorists lose the ability to understand distance of travel - 5 miles becomes 50, if you cycle 5 miles you become a superman in their eyes despite the fact that it is perfectly easy to do. Even with hills.

The media has put out a message, possibly brain-washing some, that the motorist is put upon. That they are somehow victims, yet when true victims try to tell their story they are made out to be miscreant, liars and fools. Every effort is made to discredit real victims in both the media and society. Look at how the BBC handled cycling issues on BBC Breakfast and online in the early part of this year.

There also comes with motoring, in many sections of society, a feeling that a few seconds wait is completely unjustified as you have already pointed out. I have been out on the lanes by bike and seen drivers overtake in places that to me are just too dangerous to comprehend. Blind bends and dips. I have seen other drivers coming from the opposite direction forced to brake hard to avoid a head-on. I've even caught this on head-camera.

We need a shift in culture to combat this, not just in the UK, but worldwide.

March 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDownfader

Does the news ever report cars that patiently wait until they are able to go around pedestrians or cyclists?

March 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbbattle

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