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Drinking and driverless cars


If the pollies can’t afford the funds to install a proper public transport system linking two of our principal tourism regions, then bring on the autonomous vehicle – and quick – says licence-free Whitey.

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It’s nearly 30 years since the writer sat at his table in the city with a bag of tobacco and a bottle of Highland Park, watching his driver’s licence expire.

As a risk-taking petrolheaded booze artist who found it infernally difficult to frame his will to the law, that damn ticket to ride was a threat to society and life in general. Better remove it from himself than end up enduring the ignominy of being lectured by the fuzz and a stern judge pointing gimlet eyes over the half-frames to deliver the ceremonial removal-as-punishment business.

No copper was gonna take that dude’s licence away.

I write about that dude, that dudenkopf, from a vast distance now: in many ways he was not me. Having buried too many mates who were victims of the road, and very narrowly missing being buried himself on too many occasions, it was time to stop.

Showing the sort of responsibility it took to punish oneself with a lifetime grounding was most unlike that unruly young’un with his love for speed and the thrill of risk.

But the fact was simple. A person who spent most of each working day with his nose in a snifter, or 1000 of them, could rarely boast of a blood-alcohol level that fit responsible driving, whether he spat or not.

For my first decade without personal wheels, I lived in the city. That was a breeze. A free bus would collect me from my door and take me to the Central Market. There were eateries everywhere and if the pub I lived in was not enough to quench the recreational – as opposed to professional – thirst, there were six more within a short swagger.

When I lived in a more conventional apartment, the fledgeling Adelaide Independent Taxis were always on hand, and I found a most expert and rapid driver name of Tom Koutsantonis who quickly learned my patterns.

But those were the days when Geoffrey Rush was the waiter who brought me food and Anthony LaPaglia was the man who sold me shoes: no surprise then that the future Treasurer of the state was on hand to drive a chap about.

Village life.

Then came the big risk. I moved to the country to be near my ancient parents till they accepted the move to the “Twilight Farm”. Life took some planning. To make use of the nearly-empty cars that go everywhere all the time takes a certain local political skill.

At first I lived near a general store, so day-to-day supplies were a short walk away. Now the parents have gone to join the saints in glory I live on the main road that links the McLaren Vale vignoble to the Adelaide Hills and the rest of the South Mount Lofty Ranges. No shop; no bus, and cabs are unaffordable if indeed they could ever find me.

Two major tourism regions. Wine and food: all the stuff government loves to promote. Somehow it expects all those wine and food lovers to drive around these beautiful hills and vales without imbibing half the products grown and manufactured to entice them.

No bus. Not one regular bus directly linking McLaren Vale to Mount Barker or Hahndorf and the freeway. Not one.

It was good recently to bump into Vern Schuppan at the new Greenock Creek tasting rooms in Marananga. As a bloke who’s won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix, not to mention some seconds and a third at Indianapolis, my old Exeter mate and East End neighbour knows a thing or two about driving. Not to mention how to retain one’s right to drive on the public road. I always feel remarkably safe driving with Vern.

Showing an alarming lack of foresight, I raised the topic of the autonomous car, and how eagerly I await being able to summons a driverless vehicle at will. The affable Schuppan got alarmingly close to a snigger so I changed the subject.

I’d intended to talk of the ridiculous suggestion I heard some nutty polly utter, saying the user of the driverless car must still have a licence to drive. That seems to miss the point of technological advancement. It excludes the infirm and the likes of rat-brained me from the chance at responsible travel.

But the notion stands. If the Treasurer can’t afford the Transport Minister the funds to install a proper pubic transport system linking two of our principal tourism regions, bring on the autonomous vehicle and quick.

As the Treasurer faces the thought of living without the river of gold called traffic fines, which is something he surely knows a lot about, there’s a big rethink due. It’s nice to imagine the surge in wine tourism and public income that would result from visitors being able to legally partake of the alcohol products the Tourism Minister promotes. Time will tell.

In the meantime, I get by, begging a ride to the shop once a week with kindly neighbours heading that way, and carefully planning travel to places I visit in the pursuit of my profession, like Marananga. Working the phone, finding someone else with an empty chair heading in the same direction.

There’s a huge flaw in my stance, of course. It’s a cop-out, expecting friends to take the responsibility of the wheel so I can actually swallow the product I study and promote. Abstinent wine-lovers are fairly thin on the ground.

So forgive me Vern, as I call for a vehicle without one of you at the dash. I’m sure there’ll still be chances for your brilliance to shine, and I’ll always love to sit in the bleachers or the back seat and watch.

In the meantime, I take small delight in explaining my situation to disbelievers.

“You haven’t got a licence, Whitey? How long since?”

“Nearly 30 years.”

“Jesus man, what did you do to get 30 years?”

My explanation – “It’s not what I did, mate … It’s what I stopped doing” – always brings a look of stunned disbelief.

But I promise you: the roads are a damn lot safer without me at the wheel while I do more than my share to keep the wheels of commerce spinning.

Ain’t sanctimony sickening.

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