1. A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE - ONE CASE AMONG MANY
I've felt like this for some time, for various reasons including the obvious environmental, noise & safety issues & the way that anyone looking slightly different is subject to abuse/threats/missiles thrown from passing cars, their occupants smug in the knowledge that they're safely out of reach, but my hatred was intensified in February 2000 when my dearest little pal Caroline was hit by a car while (carefully) crossing Hall Lane in Kensington, & died the following day in hospital. Those of you who knew her don't need me to tell you what an amazing special person she was, & those who didn't probably don't care, but I'll just say this: Caroline was absolutely unlike anyone I've ever met before or expect to again. She was so full of enthusiasm, positivity & energy, & packed a lot of living into her short life. She made a huge impression on everyone she met & the world is a far poorer place without her around. Her music will live on however (a CD of her songs is available to anyone interested).
This appalling loss has been intensified by the circumstances surrounding her death. It has been established that the driver was on the wrong side of the road trying to overtake two lines of stationary traffic in front of him & she had no chance of seeing him coming from the wrong direction. He was on methadone at the time & (at the age of 42) had never taken a driving test. The witnesses all confirm that he was driving dangerously, yet still he arrogantly insisted he did nothing wrong & Caroline was entirely to blame. Despite all this, the law has consistently been biased in his favour - he & his representatives insisted on a second post-mortem, preventing the release of her body from hospital for 2 weeks, & he failed to turn up at the first inquest, forcing it to be rescheduled & meaning a wasted journey from Shropshire for her father. The Crown Prosecution Service reduced the original charge of ''causing death by dangerous driving'' to one of ''careless driving'' & then again to ''inconsiderate driving'' which carries only a small fine (we later learned this was a ''clerical error''(!) which didn't stop them informing Caroline's family that the charge had been reduced once more), before the coroner's criticism & verdict of unlawful killing forced them to reverse their decision. Before this & the revelations at the inquest, the CPS had grudgingly agreed to a meeting with Caroline's family & insisted it was impossible to reverse their decision & even told them the driver was a fine upstanding citizen & it would be difficult to charge him with anything, when in fact he had regularly been in trouble with the law. At the magistrates' hearing to deal with the red tape created by the to-ing & fro-ing over the charges, he gained 4 adjournments (over several weeks) with the same excuse - that his lawyer hadn't finished reading all the notes - & 4 times the magistrate agreed (meaning more wasted journeys for her family).
When the trial finally happened (a mere 15 months after her death) the jury could not be told that he was on methadone as the police failed to give him a blood test, & they were not told that he had never taken a driving test as this was judged to be inadmissible evidence!!! The reason for this is that the law says that the case has to be tried on his actions alone, not the circumstances behind those actions, or their consequences. Thankfully the evidence was strong enough for the jury to swiftly & unanimously find him guilty but when the sentencing happened (after a long wait when the driver once again failed to turn up) he only received a sentence of 18 months & a farcical driving ban (meaningless as he has been charged with drink-driving previously & had already been banned & clearly has no intention of ever taking a test), which is not much of a deterrent to others & will not stop him from being able to do the same thing again as soon as he is free. Had he been of previously good character & in possession of a licence he would have escaped any jail sentence at all. He received a lower sentence than may have been awarded as under a new Human Rights Act imposed by Europe they have to take into account the stress caused by the long wait for him to learn his fate - no regard to the stress suffered by the victim's family or to the fact that the delay was largely his own doing.
The maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is 10 years, yet even the most outrageous examples, involving multiple deaths, stolen cars, hit & runs, dead children, going through red lights, etc, receive only 5 or 6 years (open a paper & look for yourself - they appear in the news on an almost daily basis), except in a recent case where a traffic policeman was killed & the case was dealt with within 6 months & the driver got 9 years, a far higher sentence than in any other case. One rule for them...So much for the great British 'justice' system. Can you believe all this?
Well, believe it. Caroline's killer, having forced several of us to watch someone we love slipping away in intensive care, was allowed to live freely for over a year not far from where I'm sitting writing this & to place as many obstacles as possible in the path of her family who have been made to battle every step of the way in their fight for justice. Caroline's mother never recovered from the shock of losing two of her children (as one of Caroline's brothers had died only the previous year) & sadly passed away only 3 months later.
2. THE WIDER GLOBAL REASONS
If you think the above is an isolated case, think again. Most drivers who cause deaths & injuries face only minor charges for traffic offences, & the consequences are usually not even mentioned in court - the UK is the only country in the world to disregard death or injury in this manner. Victims & their relatives have virtually no rights. The CPS are consistently reluctant to go for any charge other than ones so minor as to be incontestable, thus taking over the role of judge & jury. Even in hit & run cases, the CPS will not consider a manslaughter charge "if there are others at the scene who can tend to the victim"!!!
Inconsistencies & injustices under the present laws
Hundreds of people are seriously injured or killed every year in collisions with speeding police vehicles
· 6 people are injured a day.
· 2123 people were injured in the year 1997/8 & 168 killed in the preceding decade
· Deaths have increased 178% over the last 4 years.
· 30% of police car chases end in collisions & 15% in injuries to innocent bystanders
· yet only 2% of police drivers involved are prosecuted & 1.4% removed from driving duties.
Ministry of Defence personnel are not answerable for crashes on public roads. 17 year olds are legally allowed to drive but treated as minors if they kill someone & protected from having to appear in court. In 20 police force areas, offenders are offered the chance to attend a Driver Improvement Course as an alternative to a court appearance, & naturally most accept it, while the police receive a portion of the fees paid. Magistrates regularly impose derisory fines as their performance is judged by the amount of uncollected fines at the end of the year.
Recently, a driver who drove the wrong way down a motorway for several miles & caused a pile-up & 2 deaths was only charged with motoring offences - just how reckless do you have to be to be held responsible for killing someone? Even this pales into insignificance next to the story I heard from a woman whose daughter had been killed by someone who collided with her at 80mph, wasn't interviewed by the police for a month, sniggered at the inquest when they read out the list of her injuries & was awarded £50,000 for his 'mental distress' & set himself up in business for life, while the family received nothing. In another case an HGV driver found to have been driving for 10 years without a licence was merely fined £140 & banned from driving for 6 months - ie, banned from doing something he wasn't qualified or permitted to do anyway. It's as if the right to drive is a basic human right or something, regardless of ability. This attitude has to change or these things will keep happening.
Some facts & figures
45,000 people die on the roads in the EU every year (10 deaths & 850 injuries a day in the UK). Since the invention of the car, 25 million people have been killed - the equivalent of 25 Vietnams or 190 Hiroshimas. Road deaths are the leading cause of death for people under 45 & account for half of all teenage deaths. Britain has one of the worst child pedestrian casualty rates in Europe, second only to Ireland. The government claim cyclist casualties are falling, but fail to take into account the drop in the number of people cycling, compared to countries like Denmark & the Netherlands where deaths are far lower. British cyclists have a casualty rate per trip around 10 times that of Denmark. Here, arrogant drivers don't view cyclists as 'valid' road-users. Victims are often hit from behind & left with head injuries, & have no memory of the incident, enabling the driver to tell a pack of lies & be believed. In many European countries the driver is assumed to have failed in his duty to drive safely & is automatically liable for damages unless he can prove he was not at fault - needless to say, this approach is not taken in this country. Up to 25 deaths every day are hastened by exhaust emissions - 3.4 million people in the UK suffer from asthma, including 1.5 million children. 1 in 20 cars on Britain's roads is not insured, compared to 1 in 500 in Germany.
There are currently 28 million cars in the UK with 5000 new ones each day - this figure has risen from 19 million in 1991. Government policy means a 25% increase by 2010 & it is expected to double by 2025. The Labour government was elected on a pledge to reduce traffic but now is merely aiming to reduce the rate of growth. Their Road Safety Strategy is almost totally related to prevention - it has no strategy for the care of victims when 1 in 3 people will need hospital treatment as a result of road crashes, & large numbers of those injured or bereaved suffer long-term ill health & trauma. Meanwhile the number of buses & trains is declining. Despite buses being overcrowded & uncomfortable at peak times extra buses cannot be run because there is no more room on the roads due to all the cars, ie car-users are actually making public transport less attractive & reliable by not allowing it to run an adequate service - this is an outrageous situation.
It has been calculated that each car costs £2400 of public money each year to keep it running - this is the equivalent of giving each driver a year's free pass for public transport plus a new bike every 5 years plus 15000km of free first class rail travel. In urban areas, with traffic jams & red lights, cars average 8 mph while bikes average 12 mph & have no worries about parking spaces. Cars are bound to roads like trains are to their rails & drivers must similarly go at a speed dictated by others, & do not know when unforeseen delays will allow them to reach their destination, yet cars are far more dangerous, cramped & tiring than trains. A typical driver in the US will devote 1500 hours or more per year (4 hours a day) to their car, including travelling & the time spent working to pay for it & all the necessary extras - this much to go 6000 miles on average. This works out at only 4 miles per hour, walking speed in other words!
The effects of increased car use on society
Cars were invented as luxury goods - they enabled the rich to travel faster than the poor & were never intended for the people. They are only useful as long as the masses don't own them. With today's level of car ownership they are no longer beneficial in this way, but are still regarded as status symbols & serve only to alienate us from one another. They take up enormous amounts of space - even when stationary they need parking space outside homes, workplaces & shops. Society in the city revolves around the requirements of the car - town planning & architecture revolve around cars, not people. Cities are spread out further, meaning that people now live further away from their workplaces, schools & shops, which in turn means they need their cars to get there. We are caught in this downward spiral & can only escape it by a major rethink of our way of life & by public transport being improved & made cheaper. The reduction of parking in towns & the resultant increase in the cost of parking would go some way towards making cars a luxury good once more.
The environmental effects of all this are obviously horrendous. Huge swathes of countryside vanish to build new roads, which are full as soon as they are opened. 3% of Britain is covered in Tarmac. Vehicle emissions are responsible for 25% of all the carbon dioxide, which causes global warming. 23 million tyres are discarded each year & 28 million gallons of motor oil go 'missing', presumably into our water system. Roads fragment habitats & divide large populations of animals into smaller & less viable units, leading to inbreeding & local extinctions. The flow of rainwater & sediment from roads into streams leads to pollution & increased water temperatures.
Figures for the number of animals killed on the roads every year are staggering - 50,000 badgers, 100,000 foxes & 10 million birds in the UK alone. A recent survey revealed that 1 in 5 drivers have knocked down a cat or dog, & a quarter of those (around 1.5 million) have driven off without reporting the accident or seeing if the animal is hurt. 91% of those surveyed said in future they would report it if they hit a dog but only 50% would if they hit a cat.
Society's avoidance of the unpalatable truth
The road safety lobby has succeeded in legitimising the danger created by motorisation by directing the anger generated by accidents onto a 'deviant minority' rather than car use in general. The Liverpool Echo news report of Caroline's death merely stated the location & that she was a pedestrian killed in 'an accident' - nowhere did it say that she was crossing the road or that she was hit by a car. It seems that this type of horrific occurrence is so commonplace that it is taken for granted that readers would immediately understand what is meant by 'an accident' - it barely counts as news. Yet, in this way, journalists, by not spelling out the facts, are adding to the problem & telling us that it is nothing out of the ordinary. The majority of fatal incidents on the roads are the result of someone's negligence or misbehaviour & the routine use of the term 'accident' is inappropriate & a deliberate cover-up of the facts of the matter in an attempt to diminish the consequences & gain acceptance for the unacceptable. The hysteria over the death of Princess Diana was illuminating - to me, it was the result of the public being forced to confront something they normally turn their heads & ignore. The conspiracy theories over what caused her death & who might have planned it just look like a refusal to face up to the facts that people do regularly die in car crashes & celebrities are just as susceptible as anyone else, especially when travelling at high speed as she was. What other explanation do you need? The only reason more royalty/politicians/celebs don't die in car crashes is that they are flown everywhere & have the police clear the streets for their limousines to pass.
The automatic assumption that any crash is an accident leads to vital evidence for any prosecution being lost - drivers are often not interviewed for several weeks (although, to be fair, Merseyside Police have recently begun challenging this approach by cordoning off the scene of a collision & treating it as a crime scene till proven otherwise - an extremely positive step). On the other hand, the number of prosecutions or cautions for careless driving given by Merseyside Police has dropped from 8087 in 1999 to only 1079 in the first 9 months of 2001. Since most drivers break the law without consequence the public tend to sympathise & identify more with the drivers than the victims (the great "it could happen to anyone" lie). Official accident figures cover up the extent of the problem by excluding the vast majority for reasons of insurance claims & 'damage only' criteria, while vulnerable road users keep well out of the way. Hospitals treat nearly twice as many road casualties as those reported to the police - the number of serious injuries should be multiplied by 2.76 & slight injuries by 1.7. Serious cycle casualties are estimated to be 5.7 times the official figure.
Hypocritical responses to road deaths
The death of 8 people in a train crash causes national panic & a drop in rail usage when 10 deaths a day on the roads are ignored & seen as perfectly normal. In contrast a motorway pile-up causing 8 deaths will make the news one day & be forgotten the next. Furthermore, the deaths of 8 people in 8 separate crashes (which you might reasonably regard as a more disturbing event) will not make the national news at all. What is the reason for this hypocrisy? Why does a person's death only matter when a quantity of other people die with them? Is the devastation caused to the bereaved any less because their loved one was the only person to die in the incident, rather than being one amongst many (when the relatives are likely to receive more support & counselling)? This obsession with numbers bewilders & disgusts me.
Irresponsible attitudes of motorists & their apologists
'Road safety' measures often produce the opposite effect - they are treated by drivers as an opportunity for more speeding, so the danger is increased. Cars travelling at 30mph (the legal speed limit in urban areas) will kill 50% of the children they hit, while at 20mph only 5% will die - drivers slightly exceeding the limit as is common will kill 85% of children at 40mph. Speed reduction seems a logical response - yet the DoT regards it as a bad move & believe it creates frustrated motorists who act aggressively & irresponsibly, leading to more accidents & road rage. In other words, we'd better allow drivers to drive however they want or they'll throw a tantrum & behave even worse. The Conservative Spokesman on Transport actually said "we can't take control of people & force them to do things they're not prepared to do - funny how this only applies to motorists!
Rich footballers are able to plead successfully against a driving ban, saying that they couldn't possibly use public transport because they are so famous. If they cannot be banned then there is no need for them ever to obey speed limits. A US study estimated that 80% of banned drivers continue to drive anyway & showed they were responsible for over half of all crashes. The casual legal response is no deterrent at all & has a major damaging effect on the health of the bereaved & injured. Police speed cameras have dramatically reduced the number of people killed or injured but they are attacked in the media as an appalling assault on the rights of motorists, despite the fact that they only catch drivers going well above the speed limit. The government have given in to pressure to make all cameras clearly visible so drivers are able to slow down when passing them, thereby encouraging them to break the law wherever there are no cameras. The DoT also criticise speed reduction as slower traffic encourages pedestrians to cross the road, as if this is an outrageous thing for them to do! Their campaigns have shifted the responsibility onto cyclists & pedestrians to be careful - blaming the vulnerable & those on the receiving end.
Has the world gone mad - save yourselves before it's too late
The recent fuel protests were the ultimate in cheek - drivers complaining about the price of petrol & demanding the right to use their cars for even more unnecessary journeys. If they can't afford to pay the current prices, how come there are so many of them around? - I haven't exactly noticed the roads being empty recently. I particularly enjoyed being on a bus during the 'crisis' & sailing past an immense queue of cars trying to buy petrol as if their lives depended on it. Time to give up your cars, people - you know it makes sense.
I would also encourage everyone reading this to carry an organ donor card. There are seven people alive today with Caroline's organs, from a 6-month old baby to a man in his sixties, & it's a great comfort to know that her death was not a complete waste. Pick up a form from your doctor's surgery.
Caroline was the first person ever to give a donation to the MerseyFIN - when issue 1 was in its earliest planning stages, she handed me £5 she could ill afford from her dole money & told me to put it to use - so for that reason & a million others this issue is dedicated to her
Caroline Passant 13.3.75 - 25.2.00
Rest in peace, little sister
This issue is also jointly dedicated to Caroline's father Glyn whose quiet determination & astonishing dignity & strength of spirit in the face of unimaginable loss is a constant source of inspiration, & to my god-daughter Molly Ring, who was due on what would have been Caroline's 25th birthday, but, inheriting Caroline's contrariness, finally emerged into this world 9 days later on March 22nd 2000. Life continues, I guess.
This article reprinted from MerseyFIN issue 6/7 - contact c/o News From Nowhere, 96 Bold St, Liverpool L1 4NY