The lure of the open road

I saw my first car crash in Abu Dhabi a few days ago. It wasn’t a bonnet-crumpling impact, just a tyre squeal and thump as one car pulled out into the path of another. There were no ­bleeding heads or tears and the air bags ­remained neatly stowed as the two ­drivers ­tentatively ­inspected the ­damage. A crowd, of which I was part, stood on the pavement ­watching the drivers touch and stroke their cars as if they were injured pets.

Later, as I sat ­watching ­television in my hotel ­apartment, advertisements came on screen almost bumper to bumper selling different cars. One bounded over sand dunes and another glided through city streets. All these advertisements ­peddled the freedom of the road, the ability to go ­anywhere, at any time. ­Despite their differences, the ­advertisements were selling one thing: a person driving his or her destiny.

The car crash is the end of the road for this dream. It is the violent split second when the car’s spell evaporates, when the mystery of the automobile is reduced to bits of plastic and metal. I say this not to be gloomy or preach health and safety, but because I now live in a city which has, at least for the ­moment, ­embraced the car as the only mode of transport. And cars ­inevitably collide now and again.

Car crashes exist on two levels: they are an ominous possibility for anyone ­driving around and they are an ­unavoidable part of pop culture. After all, few action flicks lack the requisite car chase in which many vehicles are smashed up. Some films, such as Amores Perros in 2000, take the car crash as the central event that links a cast of otherwise ­unconnected characters. There is even a television ­programme based solely on ­footage of car crashes, which I happened upon as I flicked through the channels.

Dig a bit deeper and there is a roll call of famous victims, from James Dean to Jackson Pollock to Princess Diana, as well as dystopian ­commentaries like the JG ­Ballard novel Crash, later adapted for cinema by David Cronenberg. The car crash can be an adrenalin-inducing spectacle, a plot device, or a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with technology. And - lest we forget - off-screen, people do die.

But as I prepare to join the fray, to buy a car and drive around the city, I forget all about the dangers. I am ­seduced by the freedoms of the road, the ability to go where I want, when I want. The car has cast its spell and the hex is ­robust enough to survive all but the most ­catastrophic impact.

Published in The National