Monday, 29 March 2010


2m40 - Un Blog Impactant is a splendid enterprise. I first saw it on Metafilter a week or two ago, and on my recommendation we're including it in the online picks in the May Icon (083, out in a couple of weeks). It is focused, with pleasing specificity, on a single location: a particular tunnel near the Place de l'Etoile in Paris. This tunnel has a low clearance - 2m 40cm, funnily enough - and regularly scalps oversized vans that attempt to pass through it. simply posts photographs of the results (wreckage, emergency vehicles*, gawping crowds) along with fairly droll commentary in French.

This kind of accident clearly happens in this particular location a lot - presumably the blog's author saw it often before he came up with the idea of immortalising the comeuppance of careless van drivers. And it seems to exert a kind of hold over passers-by, who appear in many of the pictures to be thronging around the accident.

Image from

The Metafilter thread about the site is also interesting, with contributors showing that there are other similar sites, such as this one from the USA. Mostly, of course, roads are designed to minimise the possibility of accidents. But some roads happen to create the perfect conditions for an accident. It's all geometry - trajectory, speed, momentum, lines of sight, incline, camber. To which we can add "human incaution", itself a vector.

In the UK, roads that generate a unusually high number of accidents are referred to as "accident blackspots"; in the film Withnail & I, there's a scene when the protagonists pass a sign warning of an accident blackspot. Signs like this are erected in the knowledge that driver inattention in a key component of these accidents; they're intended to spark a greater awareness of the urban, to jolt drivers out of complacency, to change the vector of incaution, inattention. They say: This landscape is not as it appears.

Look at that. "Accident Blackspot"? These aren't accidents. They're throwing themselves into the road gladly. Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness.

- Withnail & I.

The accident-ready landscape has other visual cues as well: a layer of burned rubber left by many tires on the road, scraped barriers, forlorn bunches of polythene-wrapped petrol station flowers attached to railings and signposts with zip ties, ghost bikes. In his essay "Third World Driving Hints and Tips", PJ O'Rourke comments on the custom in some countries of indicating a crash fatality with a roadside cross - if you round a corner at speed and find yourself confronted by a sea of crosses, he writes, you're done for.

This site offers aerial views of some UK accident blackspots - intriguing little images, inscrutable in their banality, with their hidden pattern of death and destruction. Complicated junctions, bringing together traffic of different speeds from different and unexpected directions, seem to be the rule.

The Integrated and Permanent Accident

I recently finished reading David Nye's book When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America (my review will appear in Icon 084). Central to Nye's history is the idea of the "integrated accident" (a la Paul Virilio): the invention of the plane was also the invention of the plane crash. A blackout presupposes the existence of a power grid. As a parallel track to this worthwhile bit of reading, I have also been playing quite a lot of a video game called Burnout - specifically, Burnout 3: Takedown and its successor Burnout: Revenge.

Burnout is an astonishing amount of fun to play. It is ostensibly a driving/racing game, pursuing sports cars around beautifully rendered urban and mountain scenery. But as opposed to a game like Gran Turismo - which is all about precision and a nerdish delight in mastering the physics of driving - Burnout rewards recklessness. To earn speed boosts and rank increases, you have to take absurd risks in traffic and at the same time attempt to smash your rivals off the road. The atavistic joy that comes with slamming a rival into a concrete bridge support cannot be demurely stated. And if one of your rivals manages to splat you, you still have options - holding down R1 triggers "impact time", which slows down time and allows you to steer your flaming wreck into the other competitors. Crashing is the most important element of gameplay - accordingly, the crashes are rendered in extraordinary detail; not so much realism as blockbuster-hyperrealism. With this in mind, you begin to see how the different landscapes have been built to facilitate spectacular accidents with conveniently placed ramps, barriers and pillars. This is clearest on the "crash mode" levels, which involve nothing more than accelerating into a busy intersection and trying to involve as many vehicles as possible in a spectacular pile-up.

The "crash mode" levels thus take on a feeling similar to the opening scenes of the dismal UK medical drama Casualty, in which there is some fun to be had trying to guess the nature of the accident that will land the unfortunate bit-players in hospital. The innocuous intersection, with your car idling in a side-street, contains all the elements of the "perfect" crash - over that ramp, bounce off the bus, across both lanes of the freeway and into that big rig. Kaplooie. The accident is all there, it just takes the human vector, the player, to tie it all together. Across the rest of the game, individual crashes run into each other in chains of destruction. Discrete "crashes" run together into a vast, continuous, permanent accident in which every vehicle and every inch of road is somehow involved. Living near a main road strewn with the fragments of shattered brake lights, as I do, sometimes real life looks a lot like that as well.

Of course all this relates to JG Ballard's Crash, and Vaughan's accident-reenactments. It would make an interesting exercise, I thought, to appriase Burnout from a Ballardian perspective - but sadly Matt Bittanti got there first , and with far more style than I could muster [download "crash.pdf" for the results].

Thanks to Simon for drawing my attention to Bittanti.

* The French for those revolving lights on top of police cars is "gyrophares". Isn't that great?


Kosmograd said...

Great stuff. Burnout:Takedown is awesome, though my kids now think this is how people should drive all the time.

As I have probably said previously, watching car crashes on YouTube is the Ur-activity of the 21st century: Tunnel crash compilation

Geoff Manaugh said...

There was an essay in, I think, Granta's old (late 90s) compilation about London in which a truck too large for Blackwall Tunnel causes mayhem and traffic chaos for hours, because its driver had so thoroughly lodged his lorry into the maw of Blackwall as to become a temporary architectural form in the city, blocking passage for everyone. The distant winding traffic jams that appeared soon after throughout South London were a kind of spatial after-effect of his vertical self-mis-assessment.