Was Selby really such a freak?

Roger Harrabin asks why we shrug our shoulders when we hear that it was a road accident

The reaction to the Selby train crash on 28 February offers a spectacular example of the double standards we apply to transport safety. The rail crash at Hatfield last year killed four people, pre-occupied the media for weeks, and led to the closure of great lengths of the network. The death toll from the Selby crash stands at ten but, because it was directly caused by a car accident, it was interpreted as a freak event.

This position is illogical. This car crash and many others are potentially just as preventable by technical means as crashes involving trains alone, if only we applied comparable standards of safety. It is not just a matter of improving barriers near rail bridges. Say the crash was caused by a burst tyre: the government could insist that all car drivers fit the sort of run-flat tyres that are being fitted to luxury cars. This is exactly the type of safety recommendation that would be made if the cause had been a broken wheel on the train.

Say the crash was caused by a slippery road surface: that might trigger new rules on anti-skid surfaces. Suppose the weather was to blame: we might consider variable speed limits on all motorways or heat dangerous sections of roads with a built-in electric grid. Or perhaps the accident was caused by the driver falling asleep (which he denies): that could start a debate on the hours people should be allowed to drive without a break. Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol is an offence - driving in a state of such extreme fatigue that you can barely keep your eyes open is not. This issue would not be evaded if a sleepy train driver had been responsible for a fatal crash. A Loughborough University professor told a recent conference that obese motorists are a particular risk as their sleep patterns are likely to be disrupted because of their weight, and he called for freight firms to screen overweight drivers. If he had been talking about train drivers, such a theory would have triggered a rash of tabloid coverage, but it merited scarcely a mention.

Skewed media priorities on road and rail safety directly inform the political debate. After a rail crash the media always call for the system to be made safe, whatever the cost. As a result, we spend 50 times more to save each life on rail than we spend to save a life on the roads. This is an insult to road crash victims and wasteful for the taxpayer.

Why the double standards? First, people say train passengers deserve safety because they have placed their trust in a commercial carrier, while car drivers are complicit players in a mutually dangerous game. This is fair, but it ignores children, cyclists and pedestrians who suffer risks on the road disproportionate to the danger they cause to others.

Second, a train crash is a spectacular event, potentially threatening the lives of many people, while car crashes often affect just one or two individuals. Then there is the understandable "there but for the grace of God" reaction of any journalist who has had a narrow shave; and the lack of a clear authority to blame for road crashes. Finally, there is the culture of news: at the turn of the century there were so many deaths from rail crashes that they barely merited a mention in the Times. As fatal train crashes have become less frequent, they are more inherently newsworthy.

The public response to each crash is now so disproportionate that it pushes legislators into ever more expensive safety improvements to a system which, despite its faults, is already comparatively safe.

The cultural contrast with roads could not be greater. No sane minister, talking about the railways, would announce that he was prepared to countenance hundreds of deaths and serious injuries over the next ten years. But that is exactly what happened last year when the government pledged that by 2010 we would reduce the number of children killed and seriously hurt on the roads each year to 3,040.

Ministers have increased the funds available to local authorities to spend on the minor safety improvements that bring the greatest benefit of any transport spending, such as anti-skid junctions, traffic calming, safety cameras and junction improvements. But all round the country local communities are being told by councils that the safety demands for their local school, shops or park will have to wait - partly because the number of officials who assess micro-safety projects has been repeatedly cut.

The political parties are at last doing some original thinking on the fundamentals. The Tories want a road standards unit and a road-crash investigation branch of the transport department to investigate road crashes, just as the Railway Inspectorate investigates rail crashes - not necessarily to secure driver prosecutions but to see if similar accidents can be prevented in future. Labour is considering a joint land-transport safety watchdog. Either of these would be a step forward.

But both parties could usefully tell us where they stand on the proposed European directive on safer car fronts. The car-makers have known for two decades how to manufacture cars that are much less likely to kill pedestrians, but have resisted legislation to enforce better design. They are now offering a voluntary agreement that safety campaigners say would save half as many lives as the proposed law. Every month of delay results in 170 more people killed on the roads of Europe. What price safety?

Roger Harrabin is the environment and transport correspondent for Radio 4's Today and an associate press fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge