Death on the Roads

By Bailey, S. F. | Contemporary Review, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Death on the Roads


Bailey, S. F., Contemporary Review


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.

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