Too often even the bereaved don't blame the car. They persist in thinking of
what has happened as a tragic "accident".
This is a piece I have just written about our "Royal Society for the
Prevention of Accidents" - RoSPA - which works with the car industry and
perpetuates the idea of the "accident" and blames the victims of the car
rather than the car and its drivers.
The word "accident" contains a presumption. Shortly after the Selby crash,
long before the guilty verdict on the driver who caused it, the Bishop of
Doncaster, said "Accidents are part of life. Tragically, accidents occur.
And when they do occur I think we simply all have to be here, you know,
pulling together and working with the people involved." He was seeking to
convey a spirit of conciliation amid grief, but his words didn't feel right
at the time and certainly not to a jury.
"Accident" fixes a meaning which, in the case of death on the roads, is
under pressure. I sat in a meeting a few weeks ago with the Attorney
General, Peter Goldsmith, and the Solicitor General, Harriet Harman, as a
two parent RoadPeace lobby asked gently but firmly why the courts are still
delivering penalties for speeding way below the statutory limits. You can
never quite gauge how seriously you are being taken at these events.
Conversation is circumspect. The rationale for the meeting is that it is
being held. What I noticed in the hour we were together was that neither
politician nor the civil servants once used the word "accident". The concept
and what it denotes are as real as ever, but in the case of deaths on the
roads the great and the good are becoming cautious about the word
"accident". Its use is becoming infrequent, and its growing conditionality
may create difficulties for individuals and organisations who still believe
they rely on an agreed and stable concept.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) - whose mission
and name enshrine the word "accident" - is fixed in the amber of an
abandoned view of causality. The growing extraction of the word "accident"
in discourse on road safety must be troubling to an institution with that
word so prominent a part of its name and mind-set.
RoSPA believe in accidents where more and more can see fault and
liability.They see solutions in technical fixes, where others note the need
for a change in attitudes to mobility, liability and duty to others.
RoSPA tends, in the case of roads, to respond to symptoms instead of
strategic sources of danger. Like doctors when they say "we must treat this
symptomatically because we are at a loss to know from what you are
suffering", RoSPA see as a series of separate and distinct events what
others with no less scientific an approach recognise as epidemic.
I wrote to RoSPA's patron, HM The Queen, about this, thinking, after the
failure of other attempts to get into any sort of dialogue with RoSPA, that
this would be a way to get a letter (or even a leaflet) answering my
reproaches about their unwillingness to acknowledge road speed as a major
public health problem causing widespread collateral damage across
populations. The Palace responded politely thanking me for my letter and
saying my observations and questions would be forwarded to RoSPA. RoSPA did
Perhaps they are institutionally incapable of seeing what stares most of us
in the face. Go back a century or so and you can imagine the position RoSPA
might take in relation to waterborne disease. Faced with the statistics of
infant mortality amongst the populations of our cities, RoSPA would be
concentrating on the habits of the poor. I suspect that they would have been
unable to get excited about the "excessive vision" of damming lakes in Wales
and piping clean water over a 100 miles via a massive sanitation
infrastructure that would pipe away foul water to unprecedently large sewage
works. Their reflexive institutional focus is on the behaviour of victims
and their personal hygiene.
Such myopia had it been applied to waterborne disease would have made RoSPA
a natural ally of those opposing so massive a public works programme as
would be required to bring clean water to Birmingham (or less toxic forms of
mobility to the whole UK).There were after all public voices claiming 19th
century child mortality could be put down to the fecklessness of the poor.
(see Asa Briggs' account in his histories of Birmingham for examples of
fervent opposition mounted against plans to bring clean water to Birmingham
and other industrial cities).
If you looked at the sudden downward slopes in the child mortality rate
graphs after the sewers and supply systems were completed you see that, by
their attitude, people who took such "victim-blaming" stances were failing
to ally themselves with - even directly opposing - one of the most dramatic
improvements in quality of life of any public works programme in the last
The Road Danger Reduction Forum, which split from those allied to RoSPA on
these grounds, includes - formally and informally - all those
individuals and groups committed to promoting a new agenda for road safety.
It aims to reduce road danger at source, promoting equity and accessibility
for non-motorised road users. Taming motorised traffic is not on RoSPA's
It will claim deep concern about lives lost or damaged on the roads, but it
does not - as an institution - recognise the notion of road danger as a
public health problem causing blight and tragedy in the same way as did
waterborne disease over a century ago. It does not recognise the
impact of auto-dependency on air quality, noise pollution, community
severance, urban sprawl, the distance between producers and consumers,
energy waste and personal health, especially children's.
This inability to respond to the pathological impact of our travel habits
will be noted by historians of our times, but it would be so exciting
if they could add a final paragraph attesting to the courage of people
within RoSPA who caused it to make a major shift in strategy at the start of
a new century.
34 Beaudesert Road
Birmingham B20 3TG
0121 554 9794
----- Original Message -----
From: "Louis-Luc" <exqmtl@...>
Sent: Tuesday, February 05, 2002 1:00 AM
Subject: RE: [carfree_cities] Re: Carfree and Free Minded