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.
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