Tuesday 27 February 2007

The road to perdition

How tempted to pick up a newspaper would you be if the main front page story was headlined, “One person killed in car crash”? Not a lot, I expect. It’s almost up there with the legendary “Small earthquake in Chile: not many dead”.

Yet substitute “train” for “car” in my first sentence and that’s exactly how most of our national newspapers led on Saturday, after a last-minute re-make to accommodate the accident in Westmorland.

True, they dressed it up rather more excitingly as “95mph train horror” or something similar. Ghoulish early morning radio presenters did their utmost to whip up public hysteria about Virgin’s new-fangled “Pendolino” tilting trains – a proven design which has been in service elsewhere in Europe for years, with an excellent safety record. They could scarcely conceal their disappointment when someone from British Transport Police came on air to announce that they were focusing their enquiries on a set of points rather than the train, though at least that identified someone else on whom to try and pin the blame.

I have been intrigued for years by the disproportionate interest that the media and, latterly, the police take in rail accidents (and, yes, I am old-fashioned enough to believe that every now and then accidents will happen, not necessarily involving criminal conspiracies).

Compare the saturation coverage of every rail crash with the almost complete lack of interest in anything less than the most horrific multiple pile-up on the roads. Just over a year ago, I was driving north on the A1 when I was brought to a halt in Cambridgeshire. A huge pall of black smoke hung over the road as emergency vehicles of every description screamed past. Being a curious type, when I finally got home I went onto the Internet to find out what had happened, and eventually did. A lorry had driven at speed into a queue of vehicles at road works, killing a young mother and her two children, and injuring six others. It had been covered, well down their running order, by the local radio station. Although a colossal family tragedy, apparently no-one else much cared.

That’s because road accidents are dismissed as everyday stuff. Yet in 2005, the last year for which official figures are available, 3,201 people died on Britain’s roads. To put that in some sort of context, that’s 48 more than were killed in the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001, which commanded rather more interest and attention.

Our record of reducing fatalities is actually a pretty good one. There were 4,886 UK road deaths in 1926, when there were only 1.7 million vehicles on the road, compared with perhaps 35 million today. Almost 8,000 people died on Britain’s roads in 1965, when the carnage reached its post-war peak. Our death rate per vehicle mile driven is one of the lowest in Europe. My point is: it’s still way too high.

Would we shrug complacently if 3,000-odd people were being killed every year by escaped prisoners, suicide bombers or dodgy turkeys? Of course not. So why don’t the roads get more attention? Worldwide, around 3,000 people are killed in road accidents every day – more than die in wars.

Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, a family torn apart. So, while I may sometimes come across as a virtual anarchist in my campaign for personal freedom, I actually welcome this week’s further clamp down on those idiots who drive with one hand on the wheel and the other clasping their mobile phone.

And to inject one final bit of perspective, although there were 10 passenger fatalities on Britain’s railways in 2005, none died in an actual train crash. You’re probably safer on a train than you are in bed, particularly if you haven’t checked the electric blanket wiring lately. What’s more, you can talk on your mobile as much as you like. Unless, that is, you’re sitting next to me.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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