Danger from the strangers behind the wheel

Motorists must be forced to acknowledge that possession of a dangerous weapon requires extreme cauti

There is a menace on our streets, one that threatens the lives of our children on a daily basis. It comes from a group of people who are responsible for hundreds of innocent deaths each year due to their addiction to a uniquely dangerous activity. But rather than being discouraged by government and the law, this group sees its every whim indulged - indeed, £13bn of public money is currently being wasted on its behalf. You've probably guessed who the individuals are who comprise this group - motorists.

According to government statistics, in 2005 671 pedestrians and 148 cyclists were killed by drivers. Motorists remain the biggest risk to our young people: in that same year, over 2,100 child pedestrians were seriously injured or killed, including 250 under the age of five. By comparison, an average of seven children are attacked and murd ered each year by strangers. Despite the tabloid hype, your child is ten times more likely to be killed by a motorist while playing outside than by a paedophile. "Stranger danger" comes not from shifty looking men in overcoats, but from other mums and dads behind the wheel. In addition to the tally of crushed bodies and broken limbs is the hidden price paid by children through the loss of their freedom - with the streets too dangerous for children to play on, they are imprisoned in their homes by anxious parents, forced to be their chauffeurs, which can lead to more dangers for their young passengers.

Motorists are the only group of people in modern society still allowed to kill with impunity. On the rarest of occasions do motorists who cause death face jail, and then only for short periods. Take the Oxford nurse Angela Dublin, released a fortnight ago after spending just a year in prison for killing three 13-year-old children, who were travelling with her, and another motorist (aged 21), while speeding on the Oxford bypass in May 2005. As Dwain Haynes, father of one of the three boys killed by Dublin - who had seven kids in her car as she drove home from her son's birthday party - told the Oxford Times: "Serving a year goes to show what a joke it is and what a death on the road means. I only hope there is a change in the law one day." The conditions of Dublin's release prevent her entering areas of Oxford where families of the dead children live - so the law recognises the pain that would be caused to the parents bumping into the woman who killed their sons. Her driving ban expires in 2012 - she could be behind the wheel in just five years.

Another example of the negligible legal pen alties for drivers who kill concerns the Rhyl Cycling Club, four of whose members were mown down by Robert Harris on the A457 in January 2006. Harris skidded on black ice while travelling at 50mph, causing what can only be described as carnage: three men, includ ing the club's chairman and a 14-year-old boy, were declared dead at the scene. Harris was fined £180 for having bald tyres, and given six penalty points on his licence. That's one and a half penalty points per person killed - not a sign of a legal system that takes innocent deaths on the road terribly seriously. Indeed, the surviving members of Rhyl Cycling Club have now joined RoadPeace, the group campaigning for justice for road traffic victims.

Despite pumping £13bn into expanding the road network for the benefit of motorists, the government says it wants to encourage cycling. It has clearly failed: while there are seven million more cars on the road than a decade ago, the use of cycles has barely increased. Part of the reason must surely be the dangers to which cyclists and pedestrians are exposed - dangers intensified by a legal system that refuses either to punish motorists who kill or to recognise the rights of other road users. Dri v ing also seems to generate a bully-as-victim psychology, where those who deal out death see themselves as an embattled min ority - read the diatribes put out by the Association of British Drivers to get an idea of this mentality.

I have two proposals. First, every motorist who kills should receive a lifetime driving ban, with no exceptions under any circumstances. The right to life must take precedence over the right to drive. That Robert Harris was free to walk out of the magistrates' court and get straight back into his car after killing four people is an insult to the memory of his victims. Lifetime driving bans would force motorists to be more careful, as well as take the most dangerous drivers off the road.

Second, British law - which currently favours motorists - should be altered in line with the Continental system, where a driver who hits a cyclist is presumed guilty unless proven innocent. We must lift the culture of impunity, and force motorists to acknowledge that possession of a dangerous weapon requires extreme caution and diligence. Once the terror of the car recedes, people might again begin to venture on to our streets on foot and by bike. The reality of car culture promoted by the likes of Top Gear is not high-performance thrills in glamorous cars, but a wilting bunch of flowers by a busy roadside.

By Mark Lynas

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

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