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Monday, November 08, 2004


Mind how you go

Last Saturday's train crash in Berkshire, in which seven people were killed when a high-speed train hit a car on a level crossing, has reminded me of the public's curious attitude to travel safety and their often irrational perceptions of risk. People demand higher safety standards for rail travel, regardless of the cost or practicality, while resisting stricter driving laws. This double standard translates into populist government policy.

The Hatfield train crash in 2000 (caused by a broken rail) led to the imposition of severe speed restrictions throughout Britain's railway network for several months while rails were checked for cracks. But the Selby train crash in 2001 (in which the driver of a Land Rover fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the highway, down an embankment and onto the tracks) did not lead to any equivalent speed restrictions on the roads, nor were the parapets of road bridges over railways systematically inspected.

For all the recent fears about sloppy railway track maintenance, rail travel remains an extremely
safe form of travel. Tragic though the seven deaths in last weekend's accident are, we should remind ourselves of the remarkable fact that so few people were killed when the train in question was carrying nearly 200 passengers at 100mph. It is 18 years since a train passenger in Britain was last killed in a collision with a vehicle on a level crossing. In contrast, ten people are killed on average per day on British roads.

While Sunday's tabloids described last weekend's train crash in terms of "carnage" (and other predictable hyperboles), the daily toll of road deaths rarely makes the news, even in the rural weekly press.

Meanwhile, the renewed demands for rail 'safety' have bordered on the ridiculous. For example, the trades union RMT has called for the replacement of all level crossings with a tunnel. There are nearly 8,000 level crossings on the British railway network. Replacing each one with a bridge or tunnel, at an estimated cost of £1 million each (probably a conservative estimate) would cost around £8 billion - a totally disproportionate investment in view of the few lives it might save. Ironically, the Selby disaster occurred despite there being a bridge rather than a level crossing.

Popular emotions run one way on rail safety but in the opposite direction on road safety. Despite all the deaths each day on the roads, there is little popular support for tougher road safety measures. Speed cameras are hugely unpopular and the tabloids have turned the people who vandalise them into folk heroes. The BBC TV car show
Top Gear is largely devoted to promoting high-performance sports cars and regularly gets cheap laughs by lampooning speed restrictions and other safety measures. A popular middle class whinge against the police is that they should be "out catching real criminals" instead of policing the roads. Really? When ten times as many children are killed by motorists as are murdered in Britain each year?

Sensing a popular mood, the Conservative Party complains of a "war on motorists" and has even promised an election platform of raising speed limits and removing speed cameras. Few people seem to consider this irresponsible or odd.

What explains this hypocrisy? My theory is that it is about power and autonomy. Driving a car gives people a sense of freedom and control (even though they may be crawling in first gear in a traffic jam). Take a train or a plane, however, and you are in someone else's hands.

In this, as in so many issues, it all boils down to selfishness and unreason.

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