People no longer insist on revealing something about themselves to the multitude of strangers sharing their road space. What produced this change?
When did vehicle stickers stop being about the driver?
Discussion of the use of English can extend beyond questions of syntax, spelling and punctuation to include how and where we express our thoughts, likes and dislikes. On a 950km drive from one end of France to the other, I was struck by how far I had to travel before the first sighting of words on the rear windscreen of any of the other motorway travellers.
Advertisements are excluded from that statement: a for sale notice on the back of a VW Golf, occasional details of home delivery services and, in one case, a plug for a nightclub that surely should not be called Dream's unless Monsieur Dream owns it. What I mean is that there were no social or political opinions, no nudge-nudge exclamations, no news of which football team the occupants of any car might support. The French do not wish to make an exhibition of themselves when on the road (except, some would say, by how they drive, but that is another story).
Once back on British highways, I realised it was not just the French. On a short drive from Dover to London, but also when moving around the capital's suburbs, I noticed that people no longer insist on revealing something about themselves to the multitude of strangers sharing their road space. What produced this change? Why did I come across so few drivers declaring themselves for this or against that, as they once did with hunting or abortion? Where had all those football badges and Just Married signs gone? What about the surfers with their unwanted hints on what they do standing up, not to mention the tired jokes ("my other car's a Porsche") on old bangers?
It cannot simply be that we have stopped believing others might be interested in the minutiae of our lives since we live, after all, in an age of social networking sites. Perhaps we spend so much time committing intimate thoughts, preposterous views and smart one-liners to computer and mobile phone screens that we have come to neglect the car windscreen. So electronic gossip has replaced gossip on wheels. It cannot be dismissed as just another unwelcome sign of the times. Words have always been among the most effective tools of communication, and I am not convinced our ancestors were any purer. They wrote intensely personal entries in their diaries. In theory, no one else would see them. Yet if the diarist enjoyed the least fame or influence, these reminiscences would as often as not end up in memoirs. Some leading politicians of the modern age treat their own diaries as if they were top-up pension plans.
But if a prime minister's memories of office were already far removed from slogans and allegiances staring you in the face from the car in front, the gap has certainly widened now that all you are likely to see is the ubiquitous "Baby on Board" sign. Along with its refinements - I have seen references to a "little star" or even "young person" being on board - this can now be found in the back of millions of vehicles, whether or not they happen to be transporting a child at the time.
You may have guessed that the sign I saw halfway between the Mediterranean and Calais was another version of the same message. On the grounds that so much sounds better in French (and Italian or Spanish for that matter) than in English, I feel almost guilty for not having smiled with approval on seeing the Renault hatchback with its Bébé à board sticker. What stopped me smiling was the message itself. Whatever I know about words, I admit to complete confusion on whether, regardless of the language, an inane announcement about the age of one or more person in another car is intended to encourage me to drive gingerly until the sign can no longer be seen, or to explain why the car making the announcement being driven in such doddery fashion. Please bring back "my other car's a Porsche".
Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at email@example.com