Thursday, 5 April 2012

Am I real to you? Noam Chomsky and the real questions on the road

There were, I have to admit, a lot of ideas that shocked me half a life-time ago at university. But one of my more wasted fits of the vapours was over a psychology lecture I attended about Noam Chomsky’s ideas on grammar. It made no sense, according to Chomsky's theories, to imagine languages followed hidebound rules on whether infinitives could be split or what the accusative of the interrogative pronoun “who” was. Languages instead followed “derived grammars” – a set of principles that could be divined by working out how the language’s speakers actually used it.

“Whom does he think he is kidding?” my pedantic late-teenage self asked. “Who is he boldly to go into the question like this?”

Yet, however schocking I found the great Chomsky’s views, his ideas have been coming back to me lately. In this blog, I’ve written a lot about how people should think about cycling and other ways of using the roads. I’ve been looking at how best to enforce de jure, written-down rules. For this blog, I'm changing perspective, looking around and trying to divine what Chomsky might call the “derived principles of road use”. Forget what the rules say. How do people actually use the roads?

The principles I've deduced seem to me to do a far better job than any other explanation I've seen of dealing with some otherwise inexplicable phenomena I encounter on the roads.

The first of my Great Derived Principles of road use, for example, explains a mystery that's bothered me for some time. Why, I've often wondered as I watch some driver slalom around the road while using their telephone, are so many people willing to risk others' lives for the sake of a possibly entirely trival 'phone conversation?

A chilling warning - but only to motorists who understand
everyone else is real too
It's now dawned on me that hardly any of those drivers see the imbalance between the risk for other road users and their convenience in those terms. When using the roads (or undertaking quite a few other social interactions, for that matter) many people simply don’t appreciate that other people are really real. They certainly don't feel they're real in the complex, contradictory, emotionally and intellectually sophisticated way they themselves are.

It’s going to be difficult, I recognise, for some readers to accept this theory since it's coming from me and I, at the end of the day, amn’t you. Some of you might have drawn different conclusions from my confrontation a few weeks ago with the Angry Man of Clapham Road. It's entirely possible, I suppose, that the AMCR, who took badly to being told not to drive into an area reserved for cyclists, fully understood his fellow road-users’ humanity. He might simply have thought it reasonable to express his irritation by pulling his car, as I saw him do, across a cyclist’s path. Maybe he’d thought fully about the lives he would wreck if he seriously injured the man and still thought it worth making his point.

But ask yourself, I urge you, this question: when did you last see someone else using the road who struck you as as wise, sophisticated and intelligent a road user as yourself? When, by contrast, did you last ask yourself, “What’s this idiot up to?” or mentally or audibly shout some term of dismissive abuse at another person on the roads? If you’ve noted, say, half as many wise people as idiots, I grant that you have your arms round the idea that other people are as real as you. For anyone else, I fear you don’t. It is only natural, as far as you're concerned, to treat others' fears, concerns and complaints on the roads with both contempt and incomprehension. Which would be a problem only if everyone else also felt like the world’s only real person and were using the roads on the same basis that only he or she really mattered.

Many of you may still, nevertheless, feel protected by another phenomenon I’ve spotted. Just as Billy Bragg once sang, “Sexuality, your laws do not apply to me,” many of my fellow road users seem to be humming something similar about old-fashioned Newtonian physics (“Physics, I can see/ Your principles don’t work for me,” perhaps?).

It’s a tendency I first observed when catching taxis around the cities of the Balkans a decade ago. From Skopje to Sarajevo, Bucharest to Belgrade, it was pretty much unheard-of to find a taxi driver who, if one reached for the front-seat seatbelt, didn’t try physically to restrain one, shouting, “No problem, meester”. There was no need for a seatbelt, no need to ensure one’s body’s momentum wouldn’t carry one on in a crash through the windscreen. I was in the care of one of the 99 per cent of Skopje’s or Sarajevo’s or Bucharest’s or Belgrade’s taxi drivers with above-average driving skills – so above average, indeed, that they could prevent other people too from driving badly around us.

A typically bucolic scene in post-war Kosovo:
special physics is keeping the farmers on the wagon.
Those special powers, I came to realise, had been magically granted to many of the other drivers on the roads as well. Early post-war Kosovo seemed to me to present an unusually wide array of ways to crash. Kosovo Liberation Army foot patrols were apt to spring suddenly from the roadside into one’s path, giving a simple “how-not-to” class in running a vehicle checkpoint. Roads were apt to run out abruptly where a bridge had been bombed. Some were simply very, very heavily bomb-cratered. But, when I looked around, I noticed that pretty much everyone who wasn’t me or driving a tank was seatbelt-free, protected by the magic of their special driving.

The principle applies beyond the Balkans. Philip Hammond, the past UK transport secretary, argued that enforcement of road rules should no longer focus so heavily on speed or persecuting the “law-abiding majority”. Instead, it should focus on “anti-social driving”. The “law-abiding majority”, it seems, release less energy when hitting another road user at 45mph in a 30mph speed limit than someone imparting “anti-social momentum”.

Among cyclists, the “suspension of physics” crowd have their adherents among what I call the “chicken licken” cyclists – those I see cycling around wearing helmets with the chinstraps undone. According to conventional physical principles, unattached helmets offer excellent protection against the risk that the sky will fall. But, in any actual, foreseeable crash, they would fly off, offering protection barely beyond the “lucky charm” level – “I’ll be safe because I’ve made a gesture in the direction of being so”.

However, perhaps the surest proof that some people think physics has been suspended is the persistence both of in-line skating and the behaviour I encountered one afternoon on the Serpentine Road in London’s Hyde Park. The road is generally a stressful place to ride because of its popularity as a place for skaters to grapple with the fundamental problems of their means of transport. Some lay out little obstacle courses; others practise skating backwards. All fail to realise a means of transport where braking automatically overbalances you doesn’t work.

This man, however, went a step further. After a brief argument over how his sticking a skate into my path had forced me to swerve, he started shoving me. Given that the slightest return push would have sent him sprawling to the ground, he either saw himself as above physics or saw the Invisible Visible Man as a liberal wuss who would never dare shove back. The second idea is, obviously, one we can safely discard. He thought physics was only for the little people.

Yet, for anyone who doesn’t find it preposterously prattish, perhaps the appeal of in-line skating lies in the Third Great Derived Principle of Road Use: that form is more important than function, that it’s more important to be cool than safe.

A fixie at the Bike Show: this one
seems designed for looks
rather than function
One of the great exemplars of this phenomenon is the recent popularity of certain kinds of fixed-wheel bikes for road use. Many of these bikes lack brakes (albeit it’s possible to slow down by pushing backwards on the pedals). All lack gears to match the cadence of the rider’s pedalling to the bike’s current speed, the road gradient and any number of other factors.

There are, granted, circumstances where such bikes’ simplicity is an advantage (track racing, bicycle polo and, well, track racing and cycle polo). But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they’re popular mainly because their clean, classic lines look cool. People are prepared, as a result, to put on their knees the strain that gears would otherwise handle.

An SUV with tinted windows: not obviously sensible.
Drivers have been following the "cool matters most" principle pretty much ever since Chrysler first stole a march on Ford by coming out with a new model range every year. In south London, it’s a nightly occurrence to encounter performance cars with windows so heavily tinted they must be nearly opaque. Music blares out of many so loudly the whole car shakes. Navigating in safety seems to be the last priority.

But it’s not just in their kit that people show their desire to be cool. A pedestrian I encountered last week in Waterloo illustrated all three Great Derived Principles. He was too cool to look up as I rang my bell at him and too unconcerned about the physics of the looming collision to break his stride. Nor did he seem to grasp much why I might be annoyed he’d made me swerve.

“Caaaalm dowwwn,” he said, slowly and patronisingly when I suggested laughing at me might not have been the most appropriate response to a mildly sarcastic reprimand.

Perhaps, however, that sums up the conflict. I’ve spent years puzzling out the most rational way of getting people to relate to each other on the roads. The vast bulk of road-users regard my efforts with the same puzzlement as my efforts to keep the pronoun “whom” alive or infinitives together.

With the grammar, I’ve long since giving up on persuading others to agree. The encounter with the AMCR has reduced my enthusiasm for making the point on the roads. It ended with his threatening, fists raised, to assault me and my desperately calling the police. Call me a coward if you will – I can’t quite face a beating over this gulf of understanding.


  1. MIT Grad? First time I have seen someone apply Noam Chomsky to cycling. Interesting essay!

    1. Khal,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I'm afraid I'm not clever enough to have gone to MIT, so the lectures weren't from Chomsky himself.

      As I mentioned in a previous post ( I attended St Andrews University. It's sadly now famous mainly as the place where Prince William and Kate Middleton met. But it did provide some real education, as well as being a refuge for posh people too stupid to go to Oxford or Cambridge,


  2. Unusually meaty post. Two items in your analysis that apply differently in North Texas: Helmets provide good protection against hail even if unbuckled, and multiple gears are somewhat redundant here. Brakes are NOT redundant so your fixed gear observations are otherwise on target, proving once again that my superiorness only reads superior blogs. And this post merits some serious pondering...

    1. Steve,

      Thank you for your message - and your various kind words.

      I was expecting to get some feedback from fixed-wheel and single-speed riders. So it's worth saying I exaggerated my views on the point for effect (this, you'll recognise, is not a first offence). Single speed makes more sense where it's flat. But don't you struggle with the wind sometimes?

      I hadn't thought about the hail and unbuckled helmets point, I admit. But we seem to agree unbuckled helmets mainly offer protection against objects falling from the sky. Buckled up, they offer protection against a range of other things (not that I'm seeking to overplay the risks).

      All the best,


    2. To the question of wind, the answer is: S3X...


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