One of the oddest conversations I ever had occurred in the early 1990s, after a political meeting in Brighton that I helped to organise. A woman who had been at the meeting came back to the foyer as we were clearing up looking rather dazed, and said “Someone’s just hit me!” We were all very concerned about this; but in the ensuing conversation, it transpired that not only had it been her car that was hit and not her, but also that she hadn’t actually been in the car at the time.
This is an extreme example of a rather worrying tendency for people to identify closely with their vehicles. Worrying, at least, for those of us who are concerned about global warming and the congestion caused by the number of vehicles on the road nowadays, many of which spend most of their time lining residential streets. (And even if a solution to the first problem were found, the second would still be with us, and in fact would probably worsen, as those people who had decided not to get a car because of the pollution they cause would then not feel so inhibited). Granted, most people will hopefully make what they at least would see as a fairly rational decision on whether to run a car, depending on how much they need one and whether they can afford it. But once they have one, the tendency to identify with it as closely as in the above example may make it hard for them to part with it.
But what is behind this phenomenon? There is clearly some deep psychology going on here. The woman I quoted above was not a one-off. We have all surely heard someone, at some time or other, come out with the philosophically rather challenging statement “I’m over there”, meaning that that is where their car is. It’s true that people also say this about their house, and might say something like “I’m in Brighton” when they are actually nowhere near the place. But in that case I think it is a bit easier to understand, and less worrying; after all, most of us spend at least half our time in the house we live in, and our homes mean a lot to us. I think that in the case of motor vehicles, what ties an individual so closely to their car is the fact that when one is driving the vehicle becomes almost an extension of their body. When we learn to drive, we acquire tacit skills which we don’t even think about, and probably could not describe in words.
More recently I encountered an example of the converse phenomenon – referring to cars instead of people, as opposed to referring to people instead of cars. One of a series of photographs currently on display at Brighton station shows the London Road Viaduct, which the photographer says “serves as a constant reminder to cars stuck in traffic underneath that there is an alternative to driving”; and there is a road sign near where I work in London that is addressed to “buses” rather than to their drivers.
Have cyber-buses finally arrived?