Ferrari deaths: Fast and furious response overlooks the role of dream merchants



May 18th, 2012

One thing hasn’t changed since a red supercar slammed into a taxi near Bugis Junction last weekend. Ferrari’s showroom on Leng Kee Road is still open for business and its flashy website continues to sell the dream of macho power and unbridled speed.

Anger at the unnecessary deaths has been directed at the rich young Chinese national at the wheel of the 599 GTO that night. When the video surfaced suggesting that he had ignored a red light, Singaporeans’ outrage was matched only by that of people in China who are sick of the class of individuals in their midst who think they can get away with anything (because they often do).

Opponents of gun control in the United States have a famous slogan that says, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It states the obvious, that unless you inhabit the world of Terminator or the Transformers, humans shouldn’t be blaming machines for their problems.

As obvious, though, is the fact that people can kill people is by failing to control the harm they can inflict with their machines. We already have speed limits, and the government has promised to step up enforcement. But, in this and all other cases of speed-related deaths, we seem to accept without question the right of manufacturers and merchants to sell fast cars that maybe just don’t belong in a crowded city.

The comparison with guns is instructive. The standard defence of gun rights in the US is that guns aren’t used only to commit violent crimes: they can also be used for hunting and self-defence. But then you don’t need a military assault rifle like an AK-47 for such purposes, so these are more tightly regulated.

Cars, similarly, have mostly benign uses. When you think about it, though, it is odd that there are no special restrictions on buying the vehicular equivalents of AK-47s: cars expressly engineered for purposes that would be unsafe anywhere or anytime in Singapore. We have no speed-unlimited autobahns nor a cross-country rally course. Yet, luxury sports models like Ferraris and more-affordable racers such as the Subaru WRX ply our roads freely, packed with the kind of horsepower that has no legal purpose.

True, a Ferrari is a thing of beauty even when it is standing still, so why shouldn’t a car aficionado buy one like it’s a piece of art. However, as last weekend’s crash seemed to demonstrate, a thoroughbred strains to show what it was created for, and the temptation to let it can be irresistible.

(When I last bought a car, I reluctantly decided against the Suzuki Swift Sport – which, while no Ferrari, had won rave reviews for as a hot hatch. Test-driving it along Jurong Island Highway, I admitted to myself that if I owned it, I’d be itching to loosen the leash on this feisty compact. I didn’t trust myself to resist the urge, so I contented myself with its tamer non-Sport twin. Full disclosure: I still managed to accumulate more than 10 demerit points for moderate speeding.)

A prohibition on performance cars, especially luxury sports cars, is practically unthinkable. Singapore has positioned itself as a playground of the rich, and any restriction on supercars would be as good for the country’s image as the ban on chewing gum.

In any case, typecasting certain makes of car would be like assuming that only rottweilers attack. The real problem could be how the private car – any car – has been marketed as an essentially selfish mode of transportation.

Irresponsible advertising is the norm in the auto business. Performance indicators routinely invite drivers to speed. Blithely ignoring the fact that the maximum speed limit in Singapore is 90km/h, makers of even family sedans promise top speeds that are two-three times as fast, cheered on by car reviewers.

Even supposedly eco-friendly models help sell the dream. Infiniti’s M35h Hybrid is an exquisitely sculpted car with lustrous wood finishes and leather as soft as silken tofu. But go to its website and you’ll see it advertised thus: “Lean. Mean. Green. The World’s Fastest Accelerating Hybrid. 0-100km/h in 5.5 seconds.” In other words, no other hybrid can bust Singapore’s speed limit as quickly.

Automotive dreams part ways with urban reality most dramatically in their vision of clear roads and empty pavements. Whether you look at a Toyota Altis brochure or an Audi A7 video, one thing you won’t see is clutter: the clutter of other cars filled with other people; of vulnerable motorcyclists weaving through traffic; of pedestrians whose only protection are the rules of the road.

Media scholars don’t believe that messages, no matter how persuasive, work like injections of mind-altering drugs. People often overestimate the impact of individual stories or advertisements. However, repetitive exposure to the same picture of the world may indeed have a cumulative effect. Researchers of so-called “cultivation theory” have found, for example, that habitual television viewers, exposed to crime-filled news and entertainment, tend to overestimate how mean and violent their society actually is.

Is there a similar process at work in the way automobiles are marketed? After all, for decades, the dream merchants have packaged cars of all sizes, shapes and sticker prices in basically the same way – promising freedom from other road users. Drive this and you own the road, all the images say. It is not far-fetched to think that this incessant message has had an impact on drivers’ attitudes.

On the Ferrari website, one video ends with a cautionary note: “This film shows a fictional situation with professional drivers on closed roads. Ferrari urges you to obey all posted traffic signs and laws.”

This caveat, probably inserted for liability reasons, is unlikely to make a lasting impression. Instead, the lingering memory of this three-minute video is of breathtaking vistas and a machine of heart-stopping beauty. It glides across alpine snow and golden desert, effortlessly inhaling miles and miles of empty road into its bold red snout. The terrain, time and weather change – but it never needs to cross a junction or stop for a pedestrian.

The world in that video is somewhat different from the one that was captured by a passing taxi at 4.09am last Saturday.

We will never know for certain which streetscape filled the mind’s eye of the young Ferrari driver that night. But we can make an educated guess.

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