Driven Off the Roads

One in every 15 British children will be injured or killed by a vehicle before they reach 16

By George Monbiot. Published in the Evening Standard 15th May 1996.

At the beginning of last year, the five year-old son of a friend of mine was playing in the road. He never saw the car that killed him; he probably never even heard it. It came round the corner at 65 miles per hour, in a 30mph zone. The driver, unlike many who have killed pedestrians, had the good grace to stop, and when Tom’s body had been scraped off the road, he was taken in for questioning.

The court found him guilty, not only of careless driving, but also of driving without a licence and making false statements to obtain insurance. He was fined £400, with £200 costs. The fact that he had killed a child was not even mentioned – the prosecution maintained that the relevant offence was careless driving, rather than its accidental outcome.

Tom was one of 14 people who are killed by cars and lorries every day; 45,000 are killed or seriously injured every year. One in every 15 children will be injured or killed by a vehicle before they reach 16. Had as many British servicemen been sent home from the Gulf War, there would have been a national outcry. Instead we accept this grisly toll without blinking. It is regarded much as polio was before vaccinations were developed: a regrettable but insuperable act of God.

As the use of the car has increased, and the freedoms it once brought have diminished, the relationship between man and machine has been subtly reversed – it is now we who are serving the car, rather than the car which is serving us. Had the man who killed Tom instead strode out of his house in a rage one night, and smashed a car windscreen in order to silence its alarm, he may well have been sent to prison. Pedestrians hitting cars is a graver offence than cars hitting pedestrians.

Collisions with pedestrians and cyclists are falling, but only because they have been forced off the road. In 1971, 90 per cent of children went unaccompanied to school. By 1990, thanks to concerns about road safety, the figure had fallen to nine per cent. Instead children are now being driven to school, ironically multiplying the dangers for the few hardy or impoverished souls who still have the use of their own legs. 8.45am, the hour of the frantic mum, is the most hazardous time to be young in a public place.

Having annexed the streets, the tin tyrant is now taking over the pavements. A blind neighbour now seldom dares to leave her house, as the journey round the corner to the newsagent’s is fraught with obstacles, some of which are parked so close to the walls that she is forced to step into the street. In many parts of London, it’s becoming impossible to walk and talk at the same time – not so much because the lead building up in our brains is making imbeciles of us, but because we are constantly having to split or fall into single file.

In fact, our social connectedness diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of traffic in our streets. A study in San Francisco showed that people who live in busy streets know fewer of their neighbours than those who live in quiet ones. Traffic not only drives us out of our front gardens, drowns out conversation and discourages us from crossing the road, it also creates the impression of transience – when everyone is passing through, the social glue won’t set. Our children are growing up socially stunted – instead of playing together on their bikes they are playing alone on their computers, in part because the only available public spaces have gone.

Far from restraining the intrusion of the car into our lives, our representatives bend over backwards to accomodate it. The pelican crossings replacing Belisha beacons all over London are designed to give priority to the motorist instead of the pedestrian. It is true that speed cameras are also being installed, but most of them don’t work. Local authorities have to pay for their erection and maintenance, but all the receipts from speeding fines go to the government. Without incentives, many councils don’t even bother to load them with film.

As traffic increases, our health inevitably deteriorates. Exhaust fumes could be killing as many as 10,000 of us every year. Our constant inhalations of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, benzene and toluene mean that no one who lives in the city can now be truly healthy.

But perhaps the car’s greatest sin is what it does to all those who sit behind the wheel. The mildest Dr Jekylls, who wouldn’t dream of offending a stranger in the office or on the pavement, need only sip the powerful draught of mobile territoriality to turn into the most fiendish Mr Hydes. The combination of defending your space at the expense of other people’s and the impatience that the potential for tremendous speed engenders seems to take hold of us like a demon possession. There are no more Mr Magoos on the road, only Dick Dastardlys. As cars become smoother and quieter, as 70mph feels more and more like 30, we become better and better insulated from the consequences of our actions.

Gradually, the mounting rage with which the car has possessed us seems to be spilling over into the rest of our lives. We are, as a nation, becoming less courteous and considerate, less respectful of other people’s feelings and peace of mind. The car, like an alien invader, is taking us over.

Yet it needn’t be like this. All the congestion, the pollution, the anger which suffuses London between the hours of eight and ten and four and six is caused by just 14 per cent of commuters. The money spent on cutting two and a half minutes off driving time by ploughing the M11 through the last green spaces in Wanstead and Leytonstone could have built cycleways and new pedestrian precincts all over London, with millions left over to invest in public transport. The tyrant has ruled for long enough. It is time to drive the car out of our lives, and make London a city for humans, rather than machines.