LEADING ARTICLE : A cough and bull story

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The Independent Online
Smog on the river. Smog on the roads. Smog curling its tendrils under doors and through windows. Smog in Parliament. Last week's hot weather made us all too aware of how our air quality is deteriorating, and that the main culprit is the motor vehicle.

But this bank holiday weekend cars were busy killing people in more conventional ways. It is true that fewer of us now die on Britain's roads - deaths last year were down, at 3,651, to their lowest level since 1926. But disaggregate the figures and behind this rosy image is a transport system that is becoming more, not less, dangerous, particularly for pedestrians and most notably for children walking on the street. Last year the number of children who died after being hit by vehicles rose by a staggering 28 per cent.

Many motorists believe that casualties among pedestrians and cyclists are falling. And for a while they did - but even then much of the decline could be ascribed to other people being driven off the roads. For example, between 1971 and 1990 the proportion of 7- and 8-year-olds allowed to go to school on their own dropped from 80 per cent to just 10 per cent. In any case, the latest figures reveal that since the mid-Eighties, the rate has started to climb once more.

So compulsory wearing of safety belts, greater use of air bags, anti- lock brakes and the efficiency of the emergency services may be preventing many fatalities among those in cars, but there is no sign that drivers are being more careful. As we motor along listening to the stereo, in our carefully controlled, wind-free environment, many of us seem oblivious to the threat we pose to more vulnerable road users.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this is the use of bull bars. On trendy four-wheel-drive vehicles, many of which are destined never to leave the city, bull bars are fashion accessories. They are impressive and totally useless. And, since they are designed not to crumple, as bumpers do, they cause far more damage to any soft objects they might hit - like children, for instance. They are symptomatic of a car culture that rates style and vehicle performance above considerations of safety.

If we are to make any real impact on the casualties inflicted on non- car users, motorists will have to change their ways. That means driving more slowly and more carefully. We could make a start by thinking of others when we buy a new vehicle. A boycott of bull bars in favour of cars with air bags on their bonnets to protect pedestrians (as are now fitted on some Japanese cars) would be a good first step.