There is one enormous omission from the government’s latest campaign against street crime and antisocial behaviour, announced in the Queen’s Speech. And it is a puzzling one. Last year, 170 people were murdered in London, but 299 people died on the roads. So why doesn’t speeding warrant inclusion in David Blunkett’s campaign to reduce street crime? Why do street crime statistics omit any mention of the number of people killed or injured by drunk, speeding or maliciously neglectful drivers? Why has the number of traffic police in London been halved while many of the remainder are constantly borrowed for higher-profile duties? Why do the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Home Office see car thefts as a priority, not road deaths?
As senior policemen have said to me, only stupid people kill with a gun or a knife, and risk pursuit from a whole team of detectives; if they kill with a car, they are unlikely to get more than an overstretched traffic sergeant looking at the case.
But this has long been a blind spot for the left. Barbara Castle’s greatest achievements were in road safety: the introduction of compulsory seatbelts, the breathalyser and the 70mph speed limit. These measures undoubtedly saved thousands of lives and stopped tens of thousands more people from being seriously disabled.
Yet old socialists prefer to pay tribute to her record on equal pay, child benefit and better pensions. To suggest that the best memorial for such a political firebrand is the sound of clunk-click is somehow too mundane. Road safety, for the left, remains boring, boring, boring. There are no obvious ideological schisms, no apparent scandals, no cause celebre and no vested interests perpetuating an injustice on the poor and marginalised.
Or so we think. The reality is that on the roads injustice is ingrained, victims are marginalised and poverty is a killer. As for vested interests, the car lobby is probably the most vocal force in British politics. Union chequebooks can be kept at arm’s length, ministers can laugh off the Countryside Alliance’s day trip to London, but angry lorry and car drivers induce panic faster than a handbrake turn.
We’ve all heard of cases where parents hear that a speeding driver who turned their child into a brain-damaged burden on the NHS has escaped with a few points on his licence and a £160 fine. Yet this is an integral feature of the system. Relatives can discover that a court hearing has passed without a mention of the injuries to their child or partner, because the devastating consequences were not considered material to the offence. Throw a stick at a policeman during a riot, and the law will come down on you like a ton of bricks. If you drive while disqualified, see a policeman with a speed camera and accelerate half a ton of metal directly at him, that is different. You are a driver. You are covered by a different morality and a different set of legal standards. Perhaps the policeman slips over in panic and dies from multiple injuries – that’s manslaughter, not murder.
Research from the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that children from the poorest sections of society are four times more likely to die in a road crash than those of rich parents. Thus, traffic is also a social exclusion issue.
In London, Ken Livingstone’s rephasing of traffic lights – which has been hammered by the press – is partly the result of a coroner’s court case which found that the short time given to pedestrians to cross the road may have contributed to their deaths. But this is hardly Stephen Lawrence territory; it will not lead to a passionate national campaign for justice.
Thirty-five people die in two rail crashes and the world changes. Hundreds of millions of pounds are devoted to making our train journeys the safest form of transport; in the Queen’s Speech, the government promised to set up a new railway accident investigation branch. Yet in the past year, under pressure from the car manufacturers, the government has refused to back legislation at European level that would make the design of cars less harmful to pedestrians. Why are our lives suddenly worth so much less when we step off a train and out of a railway station?
We have monuments to recent tragedies such as the Paddington rail crash, but not to the thousands who have been dying for decades in the slaughter on our roads. After Paddington and Hatfield, the media rightly switched on the political heat, but, if I talk about road deaths, journalists ask me: “Where is the story?”
Only when a half-asleep car driver caused the Selby train disaster did the government do something about the deaths of the long-distance lorry drivers who are the victims of the biggest occupational killer of any industry.
An estimated 3,000 people die every day on the world’s roads, as many as died in the terrorist attack on the twin towers. Barbara Castle’s approach to road safety should be an inspiration for the left, because she faced down the vested interests of the roads lobby and used the power of government to challenge the idea that drink driving was morally acceptable.
But this is unfinished business. We have the lowest road casualty figures in Europe, but for car drivers, not for children and pedestrians. We need a cultural shift so that 20mph speed limits, speed cameras and traffic-calming measures are always resisted, often successfully.
The left should stop seeing road deaths as random twists of fate and recognise them as the direct result of neglect by politicians who are running scared of the car lobby.
Jenny Jones is a Green member of the London Assembly and the mayor’s road safety ambassador