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Death on the roads.

AT the heart of the tangle of problems presented by the development of modern roads and vehicular traffic there is very often a consistent misuse of words. The Department of Transport, for example, and its representatives, Ministers and Secretaries of State, and their collaborators, the road builders and vehicle manufacturers, talk and write endlessly about road safety, accidents, and danger on the roads; but their definitions of these words are not as other men's. A road, by their definition, is safe as a road, apart from the behaviour of drivers, if it is made so dangerous that no pedestrian or cyclist is legally allowed to go anywhere near it. Driving tests and seat belts are safety devices because they provide, or are claimed to provide, greater safety for the people inside vehicles, although there is plenty of evidence that they make things a lot less safe for people who are outside vehicles.

There is nothing new in this. One of many apt quotations in a new book, referring in this case to the need for driving tests, is: |Few accidents ... arise from ignorance of how to drive and a much more frequent cause of disaster is undue proficiency leading to excessive adventure'. That was not said by some transport expert exercising hindsight after yet another multiple pile-up. It was said by Winston Churchill, exercising foresight in 1911.

The new book now available shows us the problem. Death on the Streets by Robert Davis, like Darwin's The Origin of Species, is a book which by sweeping up a large amount of detail and putting it into a coherent shape presents a relatively old subject in a new way. It is not perhaps as well written as Darwin's, but by the time one has worked through 300 pages of text, tables and notes it is every bit as convincing.

The Department of Transport and its associates have a style of their own not only in the use of words, but in dealing with statistics. It says that the UK has fewer road deaths per head of population than any other European Community country. This statement, which is both true and frequently quoted, is obtained by setting the gross total of road deaths against the gross total population, and as a statistic is useless. The more useful. but less emphasised, statistics are that our pedestrian fatalities per head are nearly the worst in Europe; that cycling deaths per mile of cycling journeys are also among the worst in Europe; that moped and motor-cyclist deaths per number of two-wheeled vehicles are well above the average for the Community, and that in fact in the 21 countries in the whole of Europe only four have a worse record; and that compared with the Netherlands and Sweden, reported casualties per kilometre travelled are in Britain three times higher among pedestrians and ten times higher among cyclists. You are, in Britain and compared with the rest of Europe, on the whole safer inside a car than outside it.

Concepts of danger and dangerousness that we apply to, say, guns or wild animals, we have somehow stopped applying to road vehicles. A gun, by intention, is dangerous. That is its designed function. Many wild animals are also dangerous, although not by design or intention. They simply are dangerous, especially so when they are taken out of their normal wild context and put on, say, a busy urban street. In both cases UK law recognises this and puts special obligations on people who take them into public places. In most circumstances it is a criminal offence to carry a loaded gun in public, even if you are licensed to own it and whatever your intentions in so carrying it. Similarly, failing to control a dangerous wild animal is an offence, regardless of the fact that it might be your very favourite cobra and that you had no intention of letting it bite the person next to you on the Underground. The thing is intrinsically dangerous, and you have an unqualified obligation for any damage it does.

A four-wheeled or two-wheeled mechanically propelled vehicle is also intrinsically dangerous. It is necessarily made of hard and unyielding materials and it is designed to go very much faster than anyone can go by unaided human musculature. Not merely designed to go fast, either; all the manufacturers boast of the speeds their vehicles can attain, but even if they did not, all such vehicles are still designed to go a lot faster than people. Moreover the consequences of this speed are known by everyone who takes an interest in the subject. A vehicle travelling at 43.5 mph (70 kph) will kill 83 per cent of the people it hits. At 31 mph (50 kph) it will kill 37 per cent. At 19 mph (30 kph), which is about as fast as an ordinary cyclist can manage, it will kill 5 per cent of the people it hits.

Common sense says that, like a loaded gun or a wild animal, these vehicles are dangerous, but the UK law does not say it. The man whose cobra with fatal consequences bites a stranger on the Tube will be lucky if he does not get a prison sentence; but when he comes out of prison he can with equally fatal consequences |lose control' of his car, or |fail to see' a pedestrian on a crossing, and he will probably get a fine. If he is also drunk, and even if he has a record of drunk driving, he will probably get no more than a heavier fine or perhaps have his license endorsed. No one, except the victim's relatives, will say that he is in exactly the same position as a man who takes a loaded gun on to the street and accidentally shoots a stranger dead. Why not?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that over the years, and for a variety of reasons, attention has been concentrated on the potential victim rather than on the potential cause of damage or death. In many ways victims are in practice treated as the cause and origin of any trouble, so that if a child is injured or killed by a car the initial assumption tends to be that the parent is guilty of lack of care.

It is this extraordinary reversal of roles that enables the Department of Transport to talk, write, and theorise about safety, danger, and accidents in the way it does. Safety on roads consists of organising them so that vehicles can go fast, with the minimum incursion of pedestrians and cyclists, with the minimum of interruptions from junctions and crossings, and with the vehicle engineered so that despite its speed it presents the minimum of danger to the people in it. The people outside it are either not supposed to be there at all, as with motorways, or are expected to make their unwanted incursions into the vehicles' dedicated space only at designated crossings and in accordance with safety rules promulgated by authority; and if anything goes wrong they are prima facie at fault, not the vehicles.

Danger, by implication, is danger to the person in the vehicle, who must be protected by seat belts, air bags, and ever better construction and maintenance of the vehicle itself. None of this contributes to the safety of persons outside the vehicle. Quite the contrary. These precautions simply give drivers the confidence needed for them to indulge in riskier behaviour than they would otherwise. This effect, known as risk compensation, has been confirmed by many independent studies and one particularly careful Dutch report concluded, succinctly, that: |Seat belt wearing leads to higher speed, more irregular maintenance of speed, and later braking'. That was in 1989, by which time seat belts had been made compulsory in Britain, despite earlier reports with the same conclusion.

The perception of accidents is also peculiar. If, reverting to the analogy with guns, someone went for a walk with a companion and while chatting drew a loaded gun and fired it straight ahead while looking sideways to chat, he or she would be in trouble. If an innocent stranger walking towards them was killed there would at the very least be a charge of manslaughter and the gun-toting chatterer would be regarded as a maniac. If a car driver while chatting to a passenger runs down and kills a pedestrian crossing the road it will be categorised as an accident and the driver will probably be charged with dangerous driving.

The very word |accident' in fact prejudges the situation. An accident is an unforeseeable chance event with origins too remote for any one person to be blamed. In this sense there are almost no circumstances in which a car killing a pedestrian can be called an accident. If a car has defective brakes or steering it is the result of inadequate or faulty maintenance, with obvious and foreseeable consequences if it is taken on the road; if the pedestrian appears suddenly from behind another car or bus, the driver should have been aware of this possibility and should have been driving slowly enough to be able to stop; and so on. That last example perhaps gives the game away. Cars are designed and made to travel fast, and drivers have been led to believe they have a right to travel fast; and it is only by categorising as accidents the obvious and foreseeable consequences of driving fast that drivers can be held to be prima facie blameless.

Every effort is made to make car-owning attractive and to ensure that they can travel fast. Roads are improved and, if necessary, protected so that vehicles can travel faster without any hindrance from non-car travellers, even to the extent of building expensive motorways from which pedestrians and cyclists are legally banished. Public transport systems which might help alleviate the appalling over-crowding of roads are at the very least not helped and in many ways are penalised in the interests of promoting wider ownership of cars. An equivalent century-long campaign to preserve and promote the widest possible ownership of guns is at long last running into trouble in the USA where, incidentally, the gun lobby makes the explicit claim that a gun in itself is not dangerous. The danger, they say, comes from the person using it. The likelihood of a similar campaign, and similar arguments, making any headway in Europe fortunately seems remote as far as guns are concerned, but in the UK the equivalent campaign on behalf of cars is still with us and has so far been successful.

R. S. Surtees in his novel Handley Cross said of hunting that it had |The image of war without its guilt and only five and twenty per cent of its danger'. In 1990 in Britain there was a total of 336,000 road casualties, of whom 1,694 were pedestrains killed. This, in round terms, happens every year. The drivers probably face a lot less than five and twenty per cent of the danger of war, and they may try to persuade themselves that they have no guilt; but for the 1,694 dead pedestrians it might as well be war. It is time we had a cease-fire.

[S. F. Bailey worked in the early 1950s for five years in the UK Ministry of Transport before leaving to work in Africa and Hong Kong. He returned to the UK in 1983, and his interest in road transport was reactivated by efforts of his local Residents Association to cope with the consequences of Department of Transport attempts to increase the carrying capacity of the North Circular Road.]
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Title Annotation:road accidents
Author:Bailey, S.F.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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