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Driver's Seat

13th August 2002

By Glenn Torrens

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I don't know about you, but to me a car, just about any car, is simply a starting point for modification. It's the unfurnished house that will one day be a home; the dirt-covered backyard that will one day be a garden; the pile of bricks that will one day be a BBQ or the clean, white sheet of paper that will be... a shopping list...

But how we modify our cars in the future is under serious threat, I reckon.

I've been lucky enough to be reading and dreaming about cars since I dunno when. During my life, I've seen the modified - and new - car scene go through all sorts of cycles, from the dying days of the first beach buggy days in Australia, through the surf-culture, it's-a-freedom-machine, maaan panel van craze, through the grid-paper-and-digital-instrument-dash and straight-edge design days of the 80s. I've had my soul warmed as I smiled at the purity and simplicity of the Cal-Look VW - I even built a couple - and almost cried when I've discovered classic low-mile cars being chopped up to create Pro Streeters, when a set of rusty front guards and a turret cut from a wreck could have been a more worthwhile starting point.

Lately, automotive trends have given us retro-inspired stying in new cars - New Beetle, Thunderbird, Bentley, New MINI (why yell?) among many others. The modified car scene is wide awake to older classics stuffed full of modern motors and running gear, carving corners with current-model rockets tuned with technology to create absolute weapons that can be driven to the shops by your little sister. It's all good. And I wouldn't swap it for anything. But in the last 12 months I've become more and more worried about where it's all going. In fact, I'm scared.

I don't like being scared, but just about every time I've opened a newspaper, or switched on the radio, or tuned into the telly in Australia this year, I've seen stuff I should be scared of. And ironically, what I'm scared of is something that I should respect and have confidence in to help me.

The thing I'm becoming scared of is The Law.

Oh here we go. Torrens is about to rant and rave about how the cops gave him a speeding ticket last week for only doing 20 kays over the limit on a straight sunny stretch of road, or how the cops hassle modified car owners and write defects for totally stock cars, (except for the engine transplant, wheels tyres, clear lights, pod filter, loud exhaust, bodykit and fooly siiick sound system) because I'm not.

My fear of The Law bypasses all the hard-working police I know are out there doing their best to stop us killing each other. But some of those elements I've just mentioned have a direct bearing on what I'm scared of.

The basis of my fear is The Law that allows a growing number of people to sue others for what appears - to me , anyway - be their own stupid actions. And it could spread to the car scene - in fact it already has.

If you want to run a show, race or display these days, it's a lot more difficult than it was just a few short years ago, thanks to hideous public liability insurance premiums. Tuning into the media, there seems to be a fresh new trend to sue someone, pocket the cash and live happily ever after because you went out one day and got hurt.

A highly-publicised case recently concerned a bloke who seriously injured himself while swimming at a beach. He was swimming between the flags when he hit his head on a sandbar. Chink. Now he's in a wheelchair.

That's not a very nice thing to have happen, but what happened after that is, to me, beyond belief. He sued the local council - successfully - on the thin legal assumption that because he was between the flags, he should have been safe. I don't know much about the law, or the complete circumstances of the case, but on the face of it that sounds ridiculous.

To me, the yellow and red flags are stuck into the sand on Australian beaches to make it a bit simpler for the 'clubbies' (volunteer surf live savers) to focus on the kiddies and the tourists and help keep things safe. As far as I know, it's a free service. I've paid for parking my car near a beach, but I've never paid a cent to sit my bum on, or swim at, one. The flags are not a guarantee of safety, nor an excuse to sue. I go to the beach aware that I might not come home. I might drown, I might get hit by a bus as I cross the road. I might have a heart attack, lying blissfully in the sun. I might even get cancer - who do I sue then?

And there's been plenty more like it. Shopping centres, circuses, water ski parks. Lookouts. Railway stations. Tourist attractions. Zoos. It's become a nightmare for the operators of these facilities. I have friends and associates involved in these spheres of commerce and they have worry lines permanently etched in their foreheads, thinking about whether planting trees in the carpark will allow someone to sue them if a kid climbs one and falls out, or whether a mirror on a toilet door could be smashed by a drunk or a druggie and end up cutting them. I could go on about racetracks - or tell you the yarn about the bloke who sued a council because he tripped over a fence while taking a piss - but I'm sure you get my drift.

Heck, when I worked in retail, I've even seen people advised to pull down a 'Stairs very steep - take care' sign in a shop. The reason? It could be seen as an admission of liability.

So what's this got to do with cars? A lot, in my opinion. Have you taken a look at an owner's manual for any car made in the last five years? The owner's manual for the classic old early 70s Holden I own is about 20 pages. It tells you how to operate the heater, put the key in the hole, how to work the jack, where to check the oil.

The ones in new car runs to hundreds of pages. Now, I know a lot of that is to do with all the extra equipment fitted to cars, but take a close look and these owners manuals seem to have a lot of warnings and safety instructions printed in there.

I think it was a mate of mine at school many years ago who told me a story about a person and his Porsche. Person crashed his Porsche one miserable, wet night and the decided to sue Porsche. On what basis? Simple. No-where in the owner's manual did it say anything about the car crashing on wet roads, or somesuch. Someone else - according to the story I heard - sued a fast-food restaurant for an accident attributed to hot coffee being spilled while driving. It's getting ridiculous. What happened to people being responsible for their own actions?

That's why car owners manuals have so many warnings in them. It's to stop the manufactures being sued by stupid owners with nothing better to do than claim money for pain and suffering due to a broken fingernail when operating the glovebox.

And the next target for The Law could be the automotive aftermarket. The modified car scene. Workshops, manufacturers and installers. People who make cars go faster. People who fit bodykits. People who fit loud stereos. Will it get to the point where someone could sue someone for having a non-standard body kit that hurt his leg when he walked past it? Could someone sue for pain and suffering because the music is too loud and she got cleaned up by a bus whose horn she didn't hear? Could I sue a performance workshop for giving me too much power, because I crashed my cammed, chipped and and exhausted car one night?

I hope it doesn't ever get as bad as that, but then again, whoever thought you could sue a beach?

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