David Aaronovitch: What about all the deaths on the road?

'There will be no inquiry into the 3,200 road deaths we can expect this year, merely satisfaction that the numbers are down'
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The Independent Online

I wassitting in a taxi at some traffic lights in central London last Friday, when a blue car came up the inside lane and stopped next to us. Well, it didn't quite stop and it wasn't quite next to us. It edged beyond us. It inched in front of us. It crossed the white stop-line and pushed through the pedestrian crossing zone, until its bumper was a centimetre or two into the junction. Then, as the green man disappeared in the display beside us, the unstationary driver decided that he or she had waited long enough and with the lights still at red, sped off. "On the phone?" I asked the cabbie, who'd had a better view. "Yes." "Woman?" "Of course."

This was not inspiration nor prejudice, but the result of observation. On the local high street there are four zebra crossings. The main dangers to the pedestrians who use them come from men who drive too fast and too aggressively and from women on the phone. These latter roll glassily on, eyes fixed ahead, gobs mouthing unnecessary arrangements, left hands gesticulating at their invisible companions. One shoulder is hideously hunched, and the neck is at a horrid angle. If only they were to get stuck like that.

Or arrested. I should imagine that if you were to drive up your local shopping street facing backwards or with your eyes tight shut then the rozzers would have you in the time it would take to say, "anarchy ru...". But surrender your concentration to some discussion with the absent Tamara about whether Simon has herpes, and that's just fine.

In a substantial piece in last week's New Yorker magazine, reporter Malcolm Gladwell was looking at road accidents in the US. Gladwell quoted, among other things, a series of tests conducted by professor in Utah, David Strayer. The professor flashed red and green lights at people when they were driving, and asked them to react. The ones speaking on the phone missed twice as many lights as those who weren't ­ and they also reacted far more slowly to the lights they did see.

Strayer felt that speaking to a disembodied voice created a kind of virtual reality for the driver, in which they were lulled into an unobservant state where everything was fine as long as the expected happened, but in which they would be far more likely to miss the unexpected.

Like a car in a lay-by with a man outside it speaking to his mother through the window. That man was killed by a lorry driver rumbling along a familiar road at 55 mph, composing a text message for his girlfriend. The lorry-driver was sent down for five years. Judge Daniel Worsley said that it was "difficult to imagine a more blatant act of such cold-blooded disregard for safety on the roads." Except that a year earlier a Scottish trucker had been jailed for 18 months for ploughing into a Ford Escort and killing a father of three while speaking on a mobile, using a hands-free kit.

So why has using a mobile phone when driving not yet been made illegal? Some argue that the police have sufficient powers already to prosecute mobile users who cause accidents, and that what is needed is driver education. Even here, however, there can be resistance.

More than a year ago, when the Transport ministry put out leaflets urging drivers not to use mobiles at all when driving, it was criticised by the RAC and the AA ­ both of whom claimed that the use of hands-free kits were no more dangerous for drivers than talking to passengers or listening to the radio. The AA spokesperson, Adrian Ruck, told the BBC that: "Hands-free mobile phones are basically safe... In an ideal world you would not use them but you can't just disinvent the mobile phone."

It has been established that one in 30 or so of the fatal accidents on British roads are associated with the use of mobile phones. And here we have the most powerful of the road-user's lobbies arguing against even educating drivers not to use them.

Yesterday saw the publication of the Cullen report into the Paddington rail crash in which 31 died. Cullen made 89 separate recommendations to try to make sure that there would be no repetition of the disaster. But there will be no similar inquiry into the 3,200 road deaths we can expect this year, merely satisfaction that the numbers are down.

I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece because, in some ways, it illustrates why we go bonkers about a few rail deaths and are so insouciant about human road-kill. Gladwell tells the story of the great US pioneer of road safety, William Haddon and his assistant, Ralph Nader. Their organisation, for many years, championed the installation of the air-bag in American cars, but would not press for compulsory seat belts. They said it was far easier to make a dozen or so corporations obey the law, than to coerce millions of drivers into an action they would find unnatural and restricting. The trouble was, said Gladwell, that air-bags were largely ineffective without seat belts. Seat-belt legislation, when it was introduced in the States, turned out to be very effective. But what about all the lives that had been lost in the meantime?

It sometimes feels the same way here. In the year of Paddington a hundred times more people were killed on the roads than on rail. For serious injuries the ratio was far, far higher. This year's greatest rail disaster, Selby, was in fact a road traffic accident, but there will be no Cullen report on Selby. There have been mostly complaints about the growing use of speed cameras by police, despite the clear evidence from counties like Northamptonshire that they reduce road fatalities by reducing speed.

In a third of fatal accidents excessive speed is a contributory factor, yet the Clarkson brigade are to be heard constantly whingeing about how badly the fast motorist is being treated. "If only people who beat up old ladies were prosecuted with the same vigour as law-abiding drivers," is their mantra.

Earlier this month the AA (again) began agitating about the tough time being had by motorists caught by speed cameras. They had, they announced, discovered the case of a Welsh vicar who was snapped speeding in London at a time when he was preaching in the valleys. Yet when pressed, the AA was forced to agree that only a small number of tickets were issued in error.

Tough time! Wayne Rule, the man who killed a traffic policeman and who recently was sentenced to nine years in jail had already been convicted of unlawfully taking a vehicle, drink-driving and driving without licence or insurance. For these and other offences he had been disqualified from driving for 18 months several times and once for three years. Can you imagine a train driver being shown a tenth of such leniency?

This brings me to the famous conkers of Norwich. These were on trees by a busy road and the kids were trying to get them. One child had already been hurt by a car, and the threat of legal action lay heavy in the air. The council had two options: stop the cars or stop the conkers. And conkers don't vote.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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