Of Cash and Clunkers

Recently, the U.S. Government implemented a “cash for clunkers” program, modeled on a similar deal in England, whereby people buying new cars were given a flat-rate cash refund for trading in – and having junked – their old car. The idea was to get old, unsafe, fuel-inefficient cars off the roads – and, let’s face it, partially subsidize the auto industry.

What I find amusing, though, is that the popular American idea of what constitutes a “clunker” is far, far different from that of other parts of the world.

I used to, years ago, work at a job that involved my riding a bus which – among other destinations – serviced the local airport and the local, internationally famous, shopping center. Back in better economic eras, people used to come to town on package “holidays” just to shop at the Mother of All Malls, and a lot of them used to ride the bus to get to and from the mall, and the airport.

It seemed to be a particularly popular destination for British tourists, and for many of them a stretch of the interstate near the airport was their first real look at America. Now, in my most unscientific recollection, the second-most-common reaction to this vista (after ‘Cor, it’s just like Milton Keynes’) was a slightly hysterical ‘My God, they let people drive deathtraps like that here?’

Now, to be fair, there are some fear-inspiring deathtraps on America’s roads – cars and trucks so rusty, you can see daylight through them, cars with very sizable and noticeable bits missing (my neighbor’s car, usually parked in front of my house, has no hood), and a variety of other accidents just waiting to happen. But, what the foreigners were inevitably gasping about were, you know, cars with, OMG, dents, or a spot of rust on a door, or a cracked windshield. Part of it might have been the shock of seeing oncoming traffic racing towards you at ~80MPH on, subjectively, the wrong side of the highway, but…

A tourist once asked me, in apparent seriousness, if America had any junkyards (excuse me, ‘scrapheaps’), and why on earth the government let people drive such patently unsafe wrecks in public. I was a bit at a loss for words, given that she was pointing at the time at a taxi which, to an American, appeared to have nothing wrong with it other than a missing hubcap.

I always just chalked that up to jet-lag, crazy mis-perceptions of America’s affluence, and the subtle mental programming of the British (and later, EU) nanny state.

Last night, though, I caught an episode of the Australian television show Highway Patrol, which is about what you’d expect from the uninspired title. Imagine my surprise when one of the officers in the show stopped a car and proceeded to impound it for, as far as I could tell, being “unsafe to drive” on account of a broken headlight and a frayed seatbelt.

Evidently, we Americans are all alone in our strange obsession in owning and maintaining clapped-out deathtraps on wheels for years or even decades past the time when the rest of the English-speaking world would have recycled them.

Hmmn… maybe the car companies here are struggling for a reason?

I just can’t decide whether it’s an issue of Americans being tight-fisted sods, or a problem of certain American car companies making, by and large, vehicles that hold up well over a decade or longer. I mean, not to be all blame-the-victim or anything, but if all cars built in the last twenty years here were made to the same exacting standards as Saturns and Neons, people wouldn’t be hanging on to them for ten or twelve years, and would pretty much have to buy something newer and less frightening to foreigners every four or five years… or buy Japanese. Hmmn…

Published in: General | on October 21st, 2009| Comments Off on Of Cash and Clunkers

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