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Friday, July 17, 1998 Published at 23:10 GMT 00:10 UK


Driving passions

The four-wheeler has become a must-have item

BBC correspondent Duncan Kennedy examines why we have become a nation of petrol heads.

Duncan Kennedy reports on Britain's love affair with the car
The machines that move us are symbols of success.

Some are fast, others less so. We give them names and treat them like pets.

[ image: BBC correspondent Duncan Kennedy]
BBC correspondent Duncan Kennedy
It seems we can never forget them. And at the last count there were nearly 25 million of them in Britain.

I'm talking of course, about the car.

The government wants us to use them less. Its White Paper, published later this month, is likely to offer alternatives. But will it work? Why do we care so much about the car?

Driving rain

One reason is that car makers spent £500m a year making them appear to be irresistible. For others it's more practical.

One survey has found that one third of the population is put off walking when it rains. Some TV adverts reflect this, focussing on the happy smiling driver, protected from the stormy weather lashing against the windscreen.

Psychologist have identified practicality as one of three main reasons why we are reluctant to give up our cars.

[ image: Debenham:
Debenham: "I couldn't possibly manage without a car"
Jenny Debenham lives in Suffolk and nowhere near a bus-stop. Her frantic day is spent picking up daughters, then shopping, then picking up more daughters.

She says the government could never provide a personalised transport system to match it.

"I don't think I could possibly manage without a car," she says. "The only sort of public transport that would suit me would be a taxi"

Snob value

Psychologists say status is the second vital factor locking us into our cars.

Michael Stone's Jaguar can top 155mph, never mind that the average speed in London is just 10mph.

[ image: Michael Stone's Jag is his calling card]
Michael Stone's Jag is his calling card
But turning up to the golf club, especially when you own it, can't be done in any old banger. Mr Stone says your car is your calling card.

"I wanted to get a car which is appropriate for me in my station and situation in life at the moment. This is about the right car for me at the moment," he says.

Wheel love

If status and practicality aren't enough, add in the sheer pride we have for cars.

Adrian Adams has had 40 of them, cherishing every one. To call him obsessive is a compliment.

[ image: Why do we cherish our metal boxes?]
Why do we cherish our metal boxes?
"I can't help looking at cars, talking about cars, just anything to do with cars. I just love cars," says Mr Adams.

But it's a love affair choking on the daily reality of urban traffic jams. The number of journeys per person has grown by 30% in the past decade, and the government says it's getting worse.

Latest estimates say traffic will still grow by around 60% in the 30 years.

Put another way, it would need a motorway 257 lanes wide between London and Edinburgh to accommodate it all.

Despite that, drivers' pressure groups say government moves to prise motorists off the roads will only have limited results.

[ image: Auto ardour chokes the roads]
Auto ardour chokes the roads
"The government have to appreciate that simply asking motorists to pay more money for use of their car is not going to reduce their car use significantly," said AA behavioural analyst Matthew Joint.

"Motorists have a complex attachment to their cars, an emotional attachment."

There is evidence that with viable alternatives, some people will leave some cars at home for some journeys.

But driving is just as often an irrational business that new policy would be rash to leave behind.

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