Things that go bump in the street

The borough of Islington, on whose boundaries I live, has been a recognised area of London for centuries. It grew up as a collection of small manors around the Great North Road, and served the City of London with water. On what is now Liverpool Road, cattle used to stop to be fed and watered on the final leg of their journey to Smithfield. Like any other little village in the patchwork making up London, it was served by rocky, pothole-strewn roads, making travelling an uncomfortable business.

Over the past hundred years, there have been huge steps forward. Modern surfaces have been laid. Increasingly sophisticated vehicles have whisked passengers through the network of side streets. By about the 1980s, you would have said that we had pretty much cracked it, transport-wise. And then something rather odd happened.

Bone rattlers

If you drive through Islington today, you are forced either to maintain a maximum speed of around 30 inches an hour, or to resign yourself to being flung out of your seat every ten metres by a series of bone-rattling bumps that give the impression you are traversing a mountain pass known as an accident black spot. You arrive at your destination nauseous, weary and possibly bruised, very much as if you had travelled on horseback. Remarkably, decades after science and technology put an end to the miseries of travel, science and technology - in the form of speed bumps - have brought them back again.

In my neck of the woods, it's impossible not to have an opinion on these modern bogeymen of the road, even if, like me, you don't have a car. Many "concerned citizens", especially those with children, maintain that they're necessary to prevent accidents, because motorists continue to regard the speed limit the way Proust might have regarded a word limit. People who take their opinions largely from Jeremy Clarkson, and newspapers whose headlines always begin "Fury over . . .", regard speed bumps as yet another intrusion of the "nanny state", with its tiresome insistence on protecting people from harm.

It's clear from my caricature of the two camps which one I belong to . . . at least, in theory. In theory, I'm in favour of measures to make our roads safer. But in practice, I bloody hate speed bumps. I hate getting out of a taxi home from Soho feeling as if I've just done the Paris-Dakar Rally. I hate the frustration of taking ten minutes to drive down a street I could walk down in five. The speed bump argument, for me, is an example of the misanthrope's golden ticket: a debate in which I don't sympathise with anyone.

What I think we should be asking ourselves as a society - if I may begin a sentence as grandly as that - is what it tells us about ourselves that, having gone to the effort of building and maintaining a giant system of roads, we have been forced to screw them up because people won't use them responsibly. It reminds me of the way "the taxpayer" has to foot the bill to protect the Pope on his official visits, in case he's attacked by "the public", even though the taxpayer and the public are one and the same thing, so we're essentially paying to prevent ourselves from punching the pontiff. Or the way that, having built the modern miracle of the internet, we now spend a lot of our human ingenuity stopping people from using it to steal our money.

Stupor highways

Is it hopelessly naive to dream that we might one day be able to invent things without then having to devote large amounts of time and money to being protected from those inventions? I suppose the answer is: yes, of course it's hopelessly naive. The genie can't be put back in the bottle. Maybe we have to resign ourselves to the fact that speed limits will always be broken, information superhighways will always chiefly be used not for international co-operation or meetings of minds, but for porn. Perhaps we will never grow out of the habit of getting away with as much as we can.

Still, it's something to aim for. Next time you're juddering back and forth over a collection of speed bumps that would throw a tank off course, just for the privilege of attending your "bums, tums and thighs" exercise class, take time to reflect that they are a metaphor for man's ability to accept the gifts of progress without pushing his luck too far. Or, alternatively, swear, mutter about political correctness gone mad and write a pointed letter to the Evening Standard. Or, do what everyone round our way does: ignore them completely.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas