Admirers of the comic writer A P Her-bert may recall the case of Haddock v Thwale - subtitled What is a Motor Car? - in which Herbert's ever-inventive lay litigant, Albert Haddock, takes a motorist to court for knocking him down. Haddock loses initially on the grounds that he and the motorist are equally negligent, but argues on appeal that a far higher standard of care is required of the motorist "by reason of his having brought upon the public roads a lethal instrument of great mobility and power". If someone keeps a wild beast that escapes, Haddock contends, they must answer for all the damage "which is the natural consequence of its escape".
The judge takes Haddock's side. A motor car should in law, he pronounces, be regarded as a wild beast - a comparison made all the more apt by the size of the offending engine (45 horsepower). What pedestrian could cope with 45 horses tethered together, galloping at full speed past a frequented crossroads? "The ordinary walking citizen cannot be expected to calculate to a nicety the speed, direction and future conduct of such monsters, for not even their own drivers can do that."
Herbert's piece - which was fictional - first appeared in Punch in the 1920s, a time when cars were sufficiently new for many people to be able to remember a world without them, and thus to subject them to a certain cold-eyed scrutiny, as of a technology still with a lot to prove. It is tempting to conclude that this gave them an objectivity we lack today. What, indeed, is a car? A wild beast, a posse of galloping horses, a lethal weapon? Or an instrument of emancipation and economic progress? A piece of private property - or part of a public transport system? As events of the past fortnight have demonstrated, one of the consequences of mass car ownership is that most of us do not think to ask such questions any longer. But that doesn't mean they have gone away.
The latest furore over fuel prices, particularly the reaction of the motoring lobby, is worth deconstructing, given that it is likely to be repeated with increasing frequency in the coming decades. The picture that emerges is of two parallel worlds. In one, climate change rages, terrorists threaten oilfields, developing countries forsake bike, foot and bus for the private car, and oil production peaks - somewhere around 2010 or 2012, according to some studies - and then starts to dwindle. In the other world, the open road, immortalised by Toad in The Wind in the Willows, still beckons: Jeremy Clarkson extols very large, fast and thirsty vehicles; advertisements emphasise the role of cars in the achievement of status and sexual potency; Tony Blair remains in thrall to Sierra or Mondeo man; and the motorists of Middle England lambaste the pettifogging interferences of the nanny state and assert their right to go on driving until doomsday. Profound and mystical freedoms are involved, they proclaim. An Englishman's car is his castle.
One may smile at such sentiments but, as the fuel protests of four years ago showed, they are powerful enough to move millions and thus rock governments - especially modern governments with a credibility deficit. However, at some point, if one assumes that the gloomier of the two scenarios painted above is the closer to 21st-century reality, these sentiments will have to be confronted.
As the environmental group Transport 2000 reminded us this month, motoring remains historically cheap, motoring taxes in the UK are about average for Europe, hauliers are paying less in duty and tax than during the last fuel protest, and more than a quarter of all households don't own a car. And although the poorest people will thus not suffer directly from rising fuel prices or duty, they have undeniably been hit by the rising cost of public transport.
The real cost of motoring actually fell by 4.8 per cent between 1997, when new Labour took power, and last year - a period when train travellers paid an extra 3 per cent and bus travellers 8 per cent more. The disparity over the past two decades is even starker - in real terms the cost of motoring has remained at or below the 1980 level while bus fares have risen by 31 per cent and rail fares by 37 per cent.
At least in economic terms, in other words, our environment is increasingly car-friendly and increasingly hostile to alternatives. Road traffic in the UK grew by 73 per cent between 1980 and 2002 - decades when climate change went from being a risky hypothesis to something that is now, according to the World Health Organisation, killing 150,000 of us globally every year (a figure which will double within 30 years). Given that road transport accounts for more than a fifth of carbon-dioxide emissions, a proportion that is continuing to rise, common sense, if not self-preservation, suggests that we act to check the car's domination of our lives. And all this without considering its enormous toll in respiratory and heart disease, cancers, congestion, rage, noise, loss of green space and social cohesion - and accidents, which kill 1.2 million and injure more than 50 million globally each year. That's just humans, by the way - it is estimated that in the US, vehicles kill or maim one million animals and birds every day.
But when has common sense ever had much to do with motor cars? As organisations such as RoadPeace and Brake point out, the annual carnage on our roads can be predicted with such monotonous accuracy that it does not justify the designation "accident". It is a logic similar to that used to explain civilian casualties in Iraq - if they are "unavoidable", how can they be "unintentional"? If we really set our minds to it, we could probably cut accidents to zero. Unfortunately, we do not so much set our minds as close them, preferring, like Toad, to sit on the road in a cloud of dust, our horse and caravan metaphorically in the ditch beside us, murmuring "poop-poop!" and "Oh my!", and concluding that this is really the "only way to travel".
It isn't, and we clearly need a dose of mass psychotherapy. One reason we are so fixated on the car is that it is the second-biggest purchase, after a house, we will ever make. It expresses identity and status and we lavish undue care and attention on it, from stickers proclaiming our tastes and affiliations to sound systems that show how cool (or hard of hearing) we have become. Indeed, many psychologists draw explicit comparisons between house and car - both are "safe territory"; both confer a sense of control in a turbulent world. The car-makers have long recognised this - back in 1949 Ford was describing a new model as a "living room on wheels". And given the powerful branding territory this opens up, it is hardly surprising that the car, through its symbolisms and spin-offs, has permeated the bloodstream of our culture. Where would American cinema be without the car chase or the road movie? Or without the rite-of-passage film - think American Graffiti or Tin Men - in which cars, their makes and sizes assume almost the status of a cultural vocabulary?
Some pundits compare cars to babies - big face, big eyes, "cute" rounded shapes. Thus they trigger an "innate caring response". Another parallel is the womb - hence the notorious tendency of people to travel long distances "into nature" but remain fixedly inside the womb-car for their picnic on arrival. Where I live, in south London, cars have been banned from the local park - a move opposed by a tiny, noisy minority who claim to like greenery but clearly do not relish exposing themselves to it. Far safer to remain inside the "armoured extension of ourselves".
Wombs, babies, houses - what next? Well, something altogether more challenging. Put people under hypnosis, as one study did, and you find that although they profess, consciously, to be interested in reliability, comfort, economy and appearance, their subconscious is in a road movie - they're after freedom, power, speed, exploration. "There's nothing between me and almost anything I really want . . . the sun, the sky and the road and that wonderful feeling of power," one (young, male) student said, of the "high" he got from driving.
As the transport adviser Robert Davies remarks, what people do in their cars is seen as the personal business of the motorist - and as a kind of fundamental human right. The root of the problem caused by car use, he further says, is that "people are encouraged to think of an essentially public activity - and the most potentially dangerous to others that the majority of us will ever engage in - as an essentially private one".
We need, in other words, a big conversation about cars - one that takes us on from the stealth laws that are currently the stuff of policy-making (a congestion charge here, a fuel escalator tax there) and on to the themes and atavisms that lie behind it. Is driving a right or a privilege? Is the convenience worth the carnage? How else might we supply the urges - for freedom, exploration - that the car evidently satisfies? Where does private end and public begin?
Who would run such a conversation? The obvious candidate is government - but government, at least the present one, is no longer trusted much. We would need a political leadership with a degree of honesty and conviction and with sufficient feeling for democracy to spend transport taxes solely on transport solutions - in other words, hypothecation. Political pragmatism might also suggest a new quango - something like the Food Standards Agency, but for transport and with a more missionary brief. To counter the vested interests and toxicities of boy-racer culture, the new body would need a big budget and a great many specialists in "subvertising" - paid for out of hypothecated motoring taxes and the (huge) savings from prevented "accidents". Given that freedom is anyway a chimera on the congested roads of Britain, one suspects its message would strike home fast.
It is a little easier to predict what such a conversation would yield. Just as an Englishman's home is no longer his castle - ask the planners or the noise pollution officers or the building inspectors - his car, these days, is even less so. We certainly cannot afford to go on treating it as such. Homo sapiens is an individualistic species that has taken to living in colonies - the ape that became an ant - and we need to submit our territorial instincts to the exigencies of communal living. It is no use being a hunter-gatherer in a world of gridlock: all you get is road rage. In that sense, you could argue, the car represents a unique test - a watershed of cultural evolution. Will we pass it? Well, Toad did, didn't he? Eventually.
The motorists' top gripes
"Traffic wardens are the storm troopers of the forces of state interference." (Minette Marrin, Sunday Times, 11 January 2004)
". . . even if Brown does drop September's 2p duty hike, he will still be taking Britain for a colossal ride. Every time you spend 83p on a litre of petrol, 61p is going straight into his pocket."
(Sun leader, 4 June 2004)
"It's all part of this rip-off government and this rip-off Chancellor who [blames] everyone else when . . . he's the main cause of high petrol prices." (John Redwood, 30 May 2004)
"This is the government's profiteering." (Richard Haddock, fuel protester, quoted in the Express, 15 May 2004)
"Ministers and police insist cameras are safety measures to save lives, not raise money . . . Aye, and pigs might fly . . . not too fast though . . ." (Sun leader, 30 April 2004)
They are "revenue generators" that are "destroying" relations between police and the law-abiding public. (Jan Berry, Police Federation chairman, quoted in the Express, 14 May 2004)
"Dump the humps that blight our lives." (Mail on Sunday leader, 4 April 2004)
"This building was bombed in the war, but Livingstone will cause more damage than the Germans"
(Rabbi of synagogue within the charging zone, quoted in the Observer)