Beware of Hell's Grannies

Observations on danger in the streets

David Blunkett has hardly left office - and the Home Office is already dealing with another outbreak of public disorder. Our ever-vigilant government has set up a working party.

The problem? The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) reports that members of the public are being run over on the pavement by wild-eyed pensioners who then accelerate away at 8mph into the scattering crowd. Like the infamous city pavement cyclists, scything through pedestrians in testicle-crushing Lycra long johns, an older bonnet-and-brolly generation is learning to celebrate a new-found freedom in battery-driven flivvers such as the Rascal 388XL (oxygen tank holder kit an optional extra).

A recent letter to the Bridport News in Dorset set out the problem in detail: "While looking in a shop window, I became aware of a motorised vehicle approaching, the driver's eyes fixed on me. She did not slow up, so I started to move away, only to be struck quite forcibly on the leg. When I politely remonstrated with the woman, I received a mouthful of abuse and was told to get out of the way . . . There are obviously pavement hogs out there as well as road hogs."

The evidence of Hell's Grannies ("an irresponsible minority", according to the buggy industry) remains anecdotal. None the less, despite the absence of official statistics, it is estimated that 200,000 vehicles are already terrorising the public pavements, some of them hefty, "all-terrain" four-wheel jobs costing £4,500.

Unlike car drivers, elderly buggy enthusiasts can hit the road without a licence and without insurance, and even without medical or driving tests. An assistant at Westworld Mobility - a scooter franchise in Dorchester - told me: "I had a neighbour who had his driving licence taken away because his eyesight and health got so bad. He went straight out and got himself a top-of-the-range electric scooter and drove it on the roads."

Her boss, Jerry Dalston, was in a more defensive mood when I spoke to him. "You're coming at it from what I'd term the typical journalist angle," he said. "Why does everyone look at the negative side? Even if a scooter has a little bit of an accident, there's probably ten pedestrians that don't look where they're going anyway. You want to look at some of these big direct sales companies who'll sell from the back of a van to anyone that phones them. I know plenty like that - that don't have any sense of responsibility, just so long as they get a sale.

"It's the same as the way people go on about cyclists; if you ban bikes on pavements you'll have to ban scooters . . . In my shop, I'll stipulate insurance is neces- sary . . . We can't pressurise anyone . . . when you mention insurance, people tend to cringe a little bit. We don't have any such thing as a basic driving test. That said, we don't sell a vehicle to just anyone who can't use a scooter safely. I'm not dealing with anyone who's blind, though some of the direct sales companies would do that."

Rospa's Roger Vincent says: "Drivers should be aware of the potential for damage to other people as well as themselves. The last thing we want to do is stop them using these things, because they're a valuable form of transport that keeps older people in the community. Having said that, they shouldn't be posing a threat to that community."

This article first appeared in the 01 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We punish the man, but protect a corrupt system