What is it about ‘boy racer’ thrill-seekers?

A ‘boy racer’ car jammed with kids bra-a-a-atted past a while back, in apparent disregard of traffic rules, speed limits or other motorists, giving me pause to think about what happens inside the minds of teenage drivers, other than the dull buzzing sound some gadgets make when not under load.

Put one of these inexperienced kids behind the wheel, give them less driving experience than a gnat, and they’re off like rockets with all their friends in the back. Slow is for morons, hur hur… See a pedestrian crossing the road safely by normal traffic standards? Accelerate at them, while your friends in the back jeer at your target because you made them run for their life off the road, what a wimp! See another ‘boy racer’ and – well, you know who’s best, hur hur, time for a drag.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license
Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Which probably makes me sound like one of those grumpy old men. But the fact is that most weekends in New Zealand, our hard-working and long-suffering police have to scrape the remains of one or more of those over-powered, under-handling cars, and all its occupants, off the building or power pole  they’ve managed to slide into at 180 km/h. And then the police have to take the awful news to the parents.

A year or two ago, a teenage driver tried to take his car-full of friends on a thrilling jump between on and off ramps on a motorway in New Plymouth. He missed, naturally, and the car ended up embedded in the wall of a nearby building.

My answer? (1) Car makers spend hundreds of millions on high-tech research to optimise the handling of their vehicles. Teen ‘boy racers’ are NOT going to improve on that with a $1500 ‘performance kit’, still less their own ideas about suspension dynamics. Similarly, advancing the ignition timing until the carefully designed engine won’t idle doesn’t actually maximise the torque. (2) Teen ‘boy racer’ drivers probably won’t stop thrill-seeking, but why not find some way of convincing them to do this in controlled conditions on a racetrack. Finally, (3) also make them do the math of movement physics – momentum, kinetic energy and so on – as part of the driving test. (Hur hur, math is for morons…)

As far as I can tell, this phenomenon is historically new, not least because it’s built on the back of historically recent tech – the car. But by historical standards the idea of a ‘teenager’ – somebody not a child, but also not an adult – is also recent in western society. The term itself emerged via the US during the years after the Second World War. Before then – and certainly during the nineteenth century – there was no such thing. Boys went to school; and when they left – they were considered adults. No choice. We forget that a lot of the more heroic acts of derring-do in the British Empire were by young men we might call teenagers today – kids in their late teens who’d left school and gone forth into the world to see what they could find. In part this was the equivalent of boy-racer thrillseeking. But in other ways it wasn’t, and when push came to shove, most could step up to the plate.

That was made clear enough here in New Zealand when the Brunner coal mine exploded in 1896 – New Zealand’s worst mine disaster. I published the full story in my book Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand. The manager, James Bishop, rushed into the mine to rescue his workers. He was swiftly overcome by carbon monoxide and hauled out, semi-conscious. Whereupon his son – a 17 year old ‘teenager’ – stepped into the breach and worked without pause organising the rescuers and keeping tally to make sure they came back. Young Bishop did not sleep until he went home at 4.00 am on the morning after the disaster – but even then only snatched two hours rest before returning to the mine. ‘I shall never forget the sight of those bodies as long as I live.’

Times change; society changes; expectations change. If Bishop were about today, would he have gone hurtling around public roads in a ‘boy racer’ car, jeering at the pedestrians he was scattering? I wonder.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


4 thoughts on “What is it about ‘boy racer’ thrill-seekers?

  1. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? My two penn’orth is that teenagers have no purpose so find themselves at a loose end able to drive round like idiots because nobody actually needs them to do something to provide for themselves. I reckon there’d be a lot less depression and youth suicide if kids and teens felt they were needed and useful. How can we make that happen?

  2. Great thoughts! I’ve been reading about World War I, and I was shocked to find twelve and thirteen-year-old boys were fighting in the trenches. Today, there are few opportunities for boys of 13-15 to prove their mettle. It’s not enough that they want to work; they have to be creative and persistent to challenge the social norms of our society. It’s an uphill battle against expectations, and many end up giving up the natural urge to do something great and bury themselves in video game binges. I agree with you and bev. They need to know they can make an impact, else they won’t develop the healthy passion for hard work and the rewards of accomplishment.

    1. It’s incredible to think that in WW1 kids were lying about their ages in order to join in (and get wounded or killed – here in NZ over half of all who went ended up a casualty). I suppose it could be argued that boy racer cars have substituted for combat as a source of excitement today. But back then the main motivation was a sense of patriotic duty (certainly in NZ where there were also under-age volunteers at first). I think at least part of the ‘boy racer’ problem today flows from the modern juvenilisation of popular society. Young adults are not expected to behave as adults in the way they once were. The question is what can be done to reinstill a sense of developing adulthood in those growing up today? And with it that sense of potential and self-worth. I don’t know the answer, alas.

Comments are closed.