Society, speed cameras and the relentless rise of a new selfishness

Yesterday I justified leaving my McDonald's carton on the Tube by thinking how rushed and stressed I was
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The Independent Online

The Tory Party yesterday accused the government of being "wildly over-zealous" in its pursuit of paedophiles. Its front-bench spokesman, Damien Green, complained about the "cash-guzzling" police efforts to catch child-killers, and said he wanted to protect browsers of internet pornography from being "endlessly monitored" and "made to feel like criminals" by Tony Blair's nanny state. Child molestors are anyway "otherwise law-abiding people" who "do not deserve to be persecuted".

The Tory Party yesterday accused the government of being "wildly over-zealous" in its pursuit of paedophiles. Its front-bench spokesman, Damien Green, complained about the "cash-guzzling" police efforts to catch child-killers, and said he wanted to protect browsers of internet pornography from being "endlessly monitored" and "made to feel like criminals" by Tony Blair's nanny state. Child molestors are anyway "otherwise law-abiding people" who "do not deserve to be persecuted".

Well, almost. The Tories were in fact speaking about a far bigger killer. Paedophiles slaughter 15 children a year on average. Speeding kills 150. The same people who whip up lynch mobs against suspected sex offenders are doing everything they can to dismantle speed cameras - even though they have been conclusively proven to save far more children's lives than even the most vigilant anti-paedophile unit.

A detailed three-year study of speed cameras recently found that the cameras slash death rates by 40 per cent. Across Britain they prevent 900 deaths and serious injuries every year; it takes paedophiles 60 years to hit that body count.

Are all those saved lives somehow worth less than the victims of Ian Huntley? Don't the parents of children mown down by speeding cars weep just as surely the parents of Holly and Jessica? Don't they wake at night, hoping against hope that there had been a speed cameras on that road, that day? But somehow all this emotion melts into Britain's tarmac.

There's a reason. The revolt against speed cameras is a symptom of a much wider trend. As individuals, we now find it very hard to bear a small inconvenience to ourselves in return for a large collective good. We can rant against paedophiles because there is no cost to us, but tackling speeding requires each of us to slow down. Setting out ten minutes earlier for a meeting is a small price to pay to save lives, but we find it increasingly intolerable. We put our individual needs above the collective every time.

This trend is scarring the social landscape of every liberal democracy, and it doesn't only hit us on the roads. It's a pain to chuck away litter, to wait in a queue, to turn down your car radio in a residential area, to pay higher taxes. You have to pay a tangible personal price for a vague group you'll never meet. I'm terrible at doing most of these things. Yesterday I justified leaving my McDonald's carton on the Tube by thinking how rushed and stressed I was. Everybody does it, and it stinks.

It's tempting to write off anybody who moans about these problems as grumpy old man - I've done it myself - but it's also callous. It's okay for young people like me who are happy to shrug off aggression, dodge speeding cars and barely notice the mess as we rush around. The people who suffer most from the erosion of these social codes are the weak, especially the old.

Blair is right that this should be a problem that progressives are eager to tackle. The right has always revered the strong and forgotten about the vulnerable; we have no excuse.

So what do we do? First of all, it's essential to point out that the Tory suggestions will make the problem even worse. Their new motoring proposals are a neat illustration of the current Tory philosophy. Cheer on drivers who mow down the wider public good. Hit the accelerator on individual self-interest. Damn anybody who suffers the consequences.

But finding a positive Labour solution is much harder. As the breakdown of these communal codes becomes clear - from speeding to ripping up flower-beds on estates - the Government is trying to step in and recreate them with the force of the law. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) try to impose social conventions that were taken for granted a generation ago. (Back then, there were other, very different problems, many just as serious. This shouldn't turn into an exercise in bogus conservative nostalgia, and Tony Blair was eye- burstingly unhelpful when he used Sixties-bashing rhetoric in a speech on this subject a fortnight ago.)

The Government too often acts as though this increased responsibility is only for the poor. Yes, it is an important issue for the council estates, but it's also needed for the Volvo estates and the landed estates. Speed cameras are the ASBOs for the middle class, a way of punishing their largest (and most lethal) act of anti-social behaviour.

But just as the victims of ASBOs claim it their "right" to play their music at full-blast at 3am (or whatever), the opponents of speed cameras also make a bogus argument about liberty. In a bizarre insult to our war heroes, a Telegraph columnist recently compared the fight against the cameras to the fight against the Nazis, and begged his readers - on the 60th anniversary of D-Day - to remember "the price of freedom".

Liberty is the most important political value of all, but it is puerile politics to deny that sometimes liberties compete. Your liberty to speed has to be weighed against my liberty not to be run over. Some liberties are so fundamental they must be absolute: the freedom to vote, the right to free speech, and the right to a fair trial. Does anybody seriously think driving at 40mph through a residential area should be the fourth item on this list?

Very few people will admit (even to themselves) that they are acting purely out of selfishness, putting their own mild, momentary convenience over the possible death of an innocent person. Instead, we all create excuses. The pro-speeding lobby accuses everyone else - particularly the Government and police - of being the ones motivated by selfishness. The speeders say politicians don't give a toss about the public good or saving lives. They draw on the nihilism about politics that is spreading like black tar over our culture to claim that Blair and Gordon Brown - "the road bandits" - are only interested in raking in cash from speeding fines. Any claims about dead kids are self-serving lies; anybody who falls for them is mocked as "naïve".

This is a way of shaking responsibility off motorists like dust from an old suit. It is an attempt to change the subject, from the hard evidence about saved lives to an evidence-free debate about the motives of politicians.

Cars bring out the worst in this brand of excuse-making individualism. We all know that carbon emissions are contributing to global warming and ecocide. But do we use our cars less for pointless journeys? Do we even eschew petrol-intensive four-wheel-drives for sane cars? No; it's me, me, me, baby, and - hey! - I hear that global warming is all a myth anyway.

But after all the self-justifying lies, we still have to breathe the same air, use the same roads and live in the same country. However much the speed freaks of Middle England want to imagine they live exclusively in individualised steel cocoons, a speeding car doesn't discriminate. There is such a thing as society, and if the Government doesn't slow us down, nobody will.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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