A deadly war is being waged on our children by drivers – it is time to hit the brakes

The climate column: A child is killed on Britain’s streets nearly every week by a motor vehicle, while the impact of emissions on asthma and lung damage is unconscionable. We must make a stand

Donnachadh McCarthy
Monday 08 February 2021 17:29 GMT
<p>We have a choice to make about how we get around &nbsp;</p>

We have a choice to make about how we get around  

It is time to end the cruel imprisonment of our children by the deadly driver culture. The price they pay in obesity, asthma, loss of independence, mental ill health, lung damage, blocked friendships and the destruction of their futures by drivers’ carbon emissions is unconscionable.

Like most reactionary movements, the driver lobby twists the language by using the billionaire-owned press to pose as victims of an invented “war on motorists”, as if there was a deluge of drivers being massacred by people playing, walking or cycling. Since the 1940s, the mileage driven in the UK has exploded 12-fold from 29 billion to 357 billion per year.

The real war being waged, of course, is the one by drivers on our kids, communities and planet. A child is killed on Britain’s streets nearly every week by a motor vehicle. Every year, 2,700 children have life-destroying serious injuries and 13,500 have other injuries.

But this is a tiny fraction of the carnage children have suffered, as drivers invaded our family neighbourhoods. Coventry’s Bike Mayor Adam Tranter reports that, between 1922 and 1933, over 12,000 children were killed by motor vehicles.

And like any war, the defeated kids retreated inside, surrendering the playgrounds they had once freely enjoyed outside their homes. A study of four generations of one Sheffield family shows how the distance children were allowed to travel unsupervised at the age of eight has been slashed.

Great-grandfather George walked six miles for fishing. Grandfather Jack walked the mile to the woods. Mother Vicky walked half a mile to the swimming pool alone. But her child Ed is only allowed to walk the 300 metres to the end of the street.

There is now hardly a street left with the sound of kids playing. I honestly thought my street was childless until the local residents’ association staged a street party and dozens emerged from their home imprisonment to scream, laugh and run about with each other.

This imprisonment of our children is impacting terribly on their health. Only 17 per cent of kids are now doing the hour’s daily exercise needed for a healthy lifestyle. UK childhood obesity levels are shooting through the roof – 34 per cent of 11-year-olds are now overweight or obese.

Childhood obesity is associated with shorter lifespans and more disabilities in adulthood. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that childhood obesity leads to increased risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes-2, breast cancers and osteo-arthritis.

While diabetes-2 was associated with older adults, this devastating disease, linked to obesity, is becoming more common among young people, with nearly 7, 000 now diagnosed in the UK.

Car pollution also directly impacts children’s health. Studies have shown that high pollution levels can damage their lungs and brains for life. The WHO says that driver-exhaust fumes are uniquely damaging to children. High levels of air pollution are associated with increased asthma attacks. A tragic 16 per cent of children aged 10 to 12 have diagnosed asthma.

Kids used to make friends playing on their streets. The lack of independence and social isolation caused by driver-imprisonment damages children’s mental health. Mental illnesses have been rising, with a shocking 14 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds suffering mental illness at any one time.

But while the direct impacts of the driver war on kids are devastating, children face a wider existential threat from the drivers’ carbon emissions. Transport emissions at 34 per cent are the largest source of UK carbon emissions.

Just the manufacture of an electric or fossil-fuelled vehicle emits between five to 40 tonnes of CO2. This is the equivalent of between six to 50 years annual household electricity emissions. Fuel for fossil-fuelled vehicles will emit an additional 20 tonnes on average over their lifetime and an electric-vehicle about 2.5 tonnes. As we are teetering on the edge of irreversible climate tipping points, drivers are endangering the very ecosystems upon which our children’s future will depend.

As children, we had no limits on how far we could roam. Playing on the street outside our home was what we did after school. We played hopscotch, rounders, ball games and a plethora of other made-up games. It was how we got to know the neighbours’ kids and how our parents got to know others on the street. It was how communities got built.

It is time to end this deadly driver war on kids.

A good place to start is to support the establishment of play streets in your community. 

Support your councillors if they are creating Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), which stop rat-running through family streets. Ask them to create more and faster.

Urge your MPs to increase the puny £0.4bn invested in walking and cycling, to the UN recommended £6bn.

And whenever you can, walk, cycle or use public transport rather than cars or cabs. Every avoided car-trip counts.

Let us restore great-grandfather Jack’s freedom from driver imprisonment to all our kids. They and our planet deserve nothing less.

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