When you hear a car alarm go off, what’s the thought that comes immediately to your mind? The answer to that will vary quite widely with circumstance. If you’re lying in bed beside a window above the car in question, you’ll think, as you hear your one year old wail: “Not again! Every time a drunk staggers down our street, does he have to bump into that same car?” If you’re just settling down to your first drink at the bar before Sunday lunch, you’ll think: “Yikes! I left the youngest child in the car, didn’t I?” If you’re a temporarily brain-damaged Bez-alike on your way home from an eight-hour session in a Vauxhall psy-trance club, you’ll probably think: “Choon!”
The one thing that, for a certainty, you will not think is: “Goodness! Some ne’er-do-well is trying to make off with a nearby motor: I must immediately either confront him or summon the police!” There may have been some distant time in which such a thought was the natural one—a time, perhaps, comparable in duration to the time between the Big Bang and the formation of the first atomic nuclei. But it’s long gone. The wailing of a car alarm, if anything, might now be presumed to be marginally helpful to a car thief. From a distance, he will be taken for an embarrassed car-owner frantically trying to deactivate his car alarm, and the sound of breaking glass etc will be covered by the electronic whooping.
It did occur to me, briefly, that perhaps the deterrent effect might come in later on. It would require some considerable testicular fortitude on the part of a car thief, for instance, to drive his new acquisition down the high street and off to his lair with it wailing and flashing and whooping like the magic harp in the fairytale. But then I thought again. Far more likely is that fellow road users would speed the thief’s getaway by parting to let him through on the assumption that he’s an undercover police car.
I lately found online a survey conducted in New York by a league of people determined to ban car alarms altogether. Respondents were polled on whether a car alarm had prompted them to take some action against a possible car theft—such as alerting an owner or calling the police. Only five per cent said it had. Of respondents asked whether a car alarm had prompted them to take action against the alarm itself, 60 per cent answered in the affirmative. Many of them, it seems, called the police to complain about the car alarm. This survey was some years old but its findings, as far as I can see, will only have become more true.
So, the question presents itself: are car alarms the most useless invention in human history? Useless, that is, not in the general sense of ineffectiveness or superfluity—where you might bracket egg-slicers, tassels on loafers and parliamentary Liberal Democrats—but in the special sense of being something that actively undermines its own ostensible purpose. (Actually, parliamentary Liberal Democrats may deserve recategorisation here—but let’s not get side-tracked.)
One would be over-hasty to draw that conclusion; the history of counterproductive human inventions is inspiringly rich. There are the safety demonstrations on aeroplanes—which effectively hypnotise entire planeloads of people into maintaining completely empty folders in their brains marked “What to do in the event of hearing the words ‘Brace, brace’.” There are open/close buttons on the remote controls for DVD players. And so on. Car alarms are certainly in contention, though—easily holding their own, thanks to the glorious purity and simplicity of their uselessness, against flabby, gone-to-seed old contenders like democracy or the war on drugs.
Car alarms are an elegantly effective advertisement for the law of unintended consequences. It’s suggested, inter alia, that people with car alarms are more rather than less likely to leave valuables visible believing that the car alarm protects them; and, in consequence, more likely to be robbed.
This is a cousin of the perverse yet compelling argument that every advance in automobile safety makes cars more dangerous. People with airbags, seatbelts, ABS brakes and rollbars tend to overestimate the effectiveness of all these features and therefore drive like complete maniacs.
I was once cornered at a party by an academic specialist in risk (professors of risk, in my experience, are exactly the sort of people who corner you at parties) who argued that the way to reduce road fatalities to near zero would be to put a gigantic sharp spike sticking right out of the steering wheel of every new car and pointing at the driver’s chest. It would, certainly, concentrate the mind.
That, also, suggests a solution to the car alarm problem. Don’t have car alarms. Have car bombs. Thief breaks window… drunk cyclist crashes into door… careless parent leaves child in car… and BOOM! Mark my words: after a few regrettable sacrifices (and, personally, I can live with the odd crater in St John’s Grove—people drive too fast down there anyway) we’d have a world of careful parents, nimble drunks and fewer car thieves. And we’d all be sleeping through the night.