Sunday, 28 January 2007

Another day, another slaughter. Welcome to the stupid country.

Another Saturday goes by in Scotland (population around 5 million), and with it the usual pile-up of deaths through car crashes. Thankfully non in the Outer Hebrides, but that's small consolation. In Perth, 5 dead in a two-car collision. Another dead near Loch Ness. A pedestrian killed in Glasgow. And three other accidents, just in the north-east, killed another four. That batch from a cursory look at the BBC news Scotland website, so there'll be more.

Am I the only person in the entire country who finds this ... odd?

If there was such a frequency of fatalities on any other mode of transport, then there would be uproar, disruption, changes. The Potters Bar rail crash killed seven people in 2002. Following this, there was widespread disruption to train travel as lines and points were checked. On the rare occasions there is a plane crash, there's always a very detailed examination of what went wrong, with a view to trying to make the problem - be it mechanical or human - not repeat itself.

But take a car crash where several lives are wiped out. And the effects of the crash go far beyond those killed, to their families, relatives, close friends, the places where they worked, their communities and so on. I mentioned 11 deaths in the first paragraph - how many people does that directly impact? How many people, while you read this, are going through hell, and numbly preparing for funerals?

So what's the net result. Nothing. People tut, shrug shoulders. Then see the next news item and forget about it - unless you are the partner of one of those killed, and you won't be forgetting about it today, tomorrow, or any other day. Your life has just been ruined.

This generic, collective, national attitude is bizarre and retarded. I've only seen it in one other country (the US), whereas colleagues in European countries seem to take a different slant (more on that in a moment). If you die in a car crash in the UK, whatever your age or health, and whatever the reason for the crash, it seems to be a socially acceptable way to die. In any other form of transport there would be inquests, news reports, MPs lobbying for tighter measures, and so forth. You'd still be reading about it tomorrow, and the day after, and in a weeks time.

Perhaps part of this attitude (or "blind spot") may be linked to the personal consequences of causing the death of another. If you ran a company that had dangerous work practices and an employee subsequently died, you could go to jail for corporate manslaughter. Accidentally shoot someone, out of carelessness, and jail is likely. Cause a fire that endangers lives - even if no-one gets killed - and it's a trip to jail.

However, be reckless and careless when driving (you are steering over a ton of metal at speeds) and kill people, and it's more likely to be a fine and a slap on the wrist. Imagine how you'd feel if you were the relatives of her, or these people. The cost of the funeral alone is probably bigger than the fines handed out in court. And you'd see the same people, back behind the wheel, probably driving carelessly again, a few months later.

So we live in a country where it's now quite possible to receive a larger fine for putting rubbish in the wrong recycle bin than it is for killing someone through carelessness. It's almost like a religious cult; nothing shalt hinder a persons right to drive whatever, wherever. Another case in point: there's a problem in Scotland with fast drivers slamming into deers. Similar problems exist in most Nordic countries, with elks and the like. But only in Scotland is the call not for better driving and more sensible speeds - but to shoot all the deer.

Welcome, indeed, to the stupid country. Just look both ways before crossing the road, and don't be surprised if some motoring group suggests that pedestrians should be shot.

Mine is probably a very minority view. I don't own a car; I've never had the inclination as I've lived close to where I work previously, and I'm now self-employed and working from home. There's a common sentiment in the UK that not owning a car is a bit "odd" or "wierd", possibly even mentally subnormal. A lot of people think there must be some dodgy, or pitiful reason, why an adult doesn't drive. An irritating nearby resident every few months says "So you'll be finally getting a car soon", like it is some kind of essential item and without it I am deficient in some way. Perhaps she is insecure (likely, for other reasons) and needs reassurance that someone else worships the same "God" as her; perhaps she is offended by my car-aetheism. But that says more about her - last year, that same resident drove less than 100 metres from her house to a meeting, where she then spoke about how we must all do more to save the environment. Aye, right.

I'm not anti-car or anti-car driver. And I'm certainly not a luddite eco-warrior who never showers. If I get offered a lift, I'll often take it (car sharing being better environmentally anyway), and either split the petrol cost or help out in some other way e.g. computer advice. And it would be occasionally useful to have one, when the cats are ill and they need to take the long trip to the vet (unsurprisingly, asking others if they'll help drive a cat that is projectile vomiting 40 miles does not always meet with enthusiasm). It would also mean that I could have more choice about when I shop, though at the moment the shop bus (door to door) is cheap and efficient.

However, with that freedom comes fiscal horrors. Every few years I fire up a spreadsheet and work out the true cost of owning and running a car; the depreciation, petrol, MOT, insurance, tax, likely repairs. It is utterly absurd. I could get a taxi to replace every car and bus trip I take and it would still work out much cheaper overall, which is plain madness. Plus with a taxi I'm just in and out; I don't have to wash it, polish it, admire it, pray to the damned thing.

Hmmm; having a car may give you more "freedom". But, you need to have a much greater income in order to afford a car - which means either a different job, or more hours spent earning money. Less spare time = freedom? I think not. And the freedom to die with most of your life ahead of you, if some careless driver smashes head-on into you (no freedom of choice there)? No thanks.

This sneaking suspicion that the freedom element is an illusion is bolstered further by the "worship" aspect. In the last place I lived, we had a panoramic view of the other men of the street washing their cars, fixing their cars, maintaining their cars, comparing their cars and so on, for several hours a week. It took the appearance, again, of a religious cult; instead of church service, car service. Instead of communion, a sponge-over and hosedown. For several hours, every sunday, rain or shine. When the women of the small street went of to church, the men stepped outside and worshipped their alternative shiny metal Gods. Here in Berneray I see the same (except that some of the men wouldn't dare wash their cars on a Sunday when traffic is going to and from church).

It's also obvious that the car is an essential, not optional, thing for many UK residents to get to work. This is primarily due to the general crapness of public transport in the UK, especially compared to, um, everywhere else. Whether it is the decline in public transport that has led to the rise of the car as work-necessity, or the other way around, isn't clear. What is clear is that, compared to more progressive countries (read: all of Scandinavia and a lot of western Europe), the UK has gone steadily backwards in this respect.

I've been to most countries in Europe now, and in every one the public transport has been better in several ways. In most, cheaper. In most, more frequent. In many, it makes the car inessential. Holland is a good case in point. Last year I was there for a conference, and took a fast train across the country from Amsterdam to Tilburg. Cost: 11 pounds. In the UK this would have:

  • cost several times more

  • been slower

  • been a less frequent service

  • been a less reliable service

  • been subject to a lack of connecting services

(And on a related point: the UK is not a geographically huge country. Is it not, therefore, a sign of how profoundly messed-up our transport system is that it is both much cheaper and quicker to fly internally in this relatively small country than to take the train?)

Back in Tilburg, the conference organiser explained how her family didn't have or need a car. They'd considered it, but instead choose to move to a nice part of town and bike it or bus it into work. The money they could have spent on a car, went into their house and into extra education for their children. And she was right - the public transport was so good. When I stayed in Delft I got a tram all the way to the seaside. And a train to Rotterdam. And trains connected; every time I had to make a connection, the next train turned up a comfortable few minutes after the one I had stepped off.

Seems smart. The nation provides decent, frequent and cheap public transport; the citizens make a wiser choice for themselves and their families. And one other thing that possibly illustrates the difference in attitude between Holland and the UK is that on a walk through Tilburg on a bright Sunday morning, I didn't see one person obsessively washing their car. Different priorities, different Gods.


  1. I was reading a bit of Malcolm Gladwell's summary of research into suicides in the Tipping Point. He was pointing out that, when a suicide is reported in the press, there is a notable increase in suicides, in pedestrian car accidents and, yes, car accidents where the driver takes other people with them. I don't want to suggest that is the case here, but with so much happening at once, it does make one want to find out why, what the factors might be and whether they're related.

  2. I did without a care for a few months last year and it was glorious. If the public transport system was half-way decent I'd still be doing it.I don't wash it though. Did you see Johann Hari yesterday in the Indie?

  3. I have never owned my own car, and I grew up without one at home because my dad didn't learn to drive until I was in my late teens.Mostly I use public transport. I can stitch or read on the journey, which I couldn't do if I were in a car.For some journeys, public transport is crap, especially on a Sunday. So I sometimes take a taxi instead. Taxis are also a good option if luggage is involved.I will accept lifts, but only if the driver was heading that way anyway and/or if they will let me contribute to the cost. People think I am very odd when I turn down offers of lifts. but it seems a waste for someone to make a special trip to give me a lift if there is another method of transport available.I have frequently encountered the reaction 'that not owning a car is a bit “odd” or “wierd”, possibly even mentally subnormal'. My previous boss held this view, despite that fact that our employer had a policy to encourage employees not to drive to work.I realise that cars are pretty much essential for some people. I know one woman who used to walk to work before she had kids but now drives so that she can drop her kids off at nursery on the way.But it does irritate me that some able-bodied people use their cars to drive to a post box 300 yards away from their house.