Hopelessly hooked

A few weeks ago I asked on Twitter, “Should we treat cars in the same way we treat cigarettes?” 

It produced some interesting comments such as:

“We should limit the design of cars as we do tobacco packaging: small, grey boxes with a top speed of 40mph and a giant health warning”.

“Marketing is making ownership almost obligatory. The ‘packaging’ should be controlled – cut the performance and physical size of SUVs and high-performance vehicles and put stricter controls on their sale, for example by taxing them for health reasons.”

“Time for motor vehicles to have photos of the damage they cause, like cigarette packets.”

The motivation behind my question was very serious. Cars and cigarettes both kill and make people ill. They are anti-social, dangerous addictive and are marketed with glamour and aspirations of lifestyle. Yet unlike its approach to smoking, government takes no action to reduce this addiction to car ownership or to address motoring as a public health emergency. I believe we are approaching a point where the outcome of our dependency on the internal combustion engine means we have a public health crisis with three strands:  personal, societal and environmental. This requires a different approach aimed at reducing car ownership and use.

At the personal level, it’s clear that obesity has already been recognised as a health issue. Unfortunately, in Lincolnshire local authorities, like most of those throughout the UK who plan infrastructure for local communities, have for decades been creating a car-centred world where public transport or active transport such as cycling and walking have not had the levels of investment on facilities that car drivers have enjoyed. Then there are the debates about the quality of the air we breathe and what happens to the micro plastic pollution from tyres. Here in Lincolnshire they haven’t even begun.  As car use  has increased nationally, the NHS has borne the burden of a society which no longer walks or cycles in large numbers. The diseases caused by air pollution, obesity and inactivity are slowly killing thousands every year, yet this seems never to be included in the cost benefit analysis when new infrastructure is planned.

At the societal level, the mayhem caused by car use in Lincolnshire is measured by the unenviable record of random death and mayhem on its roads. We are again told Lincolnshire has the most dangerous roads in the UK. 54 people were killed in road accidents in Lincolnshire in 2019, a figure regarded as quite normal, with 2500 more injured. The total cost of these accidents was over £298 million. Local people are often heard to blame the roads themselves, but the local Road Safety Partnership has identified speed and risky behaviours, in particular ignoring speed limits and warning signs, overtaking on blind bends, talking on mobile phones and driving through junctions without looking, as major causes of many accidents

Lincolnshire is not unique in having these factors. But appeals from the Road Safety Partnership and the police for drivers to slow down, and to pay attention to the road, other road users and road conditions never seem to reduce the numbers. More questions should be asked as to whether there is a national problem amongst drivers of an addiction to speed and risky behaviours, and how years of slick marketing of larger, faster and more high performance cars have contributed to making the roads more dangerous  Many drivers seem drawn to vehicles which are entirely inappropriate for their lives and cost huge amounts of money to buy and maintain. Why do so many need an SUV? Why do so many feel their life is enhanced by a high-performance car? Who has convinced them that it’s essential for their life to feel fulfilled by car ownership? It seems that the similarities with the debate over cigarettes is more than mere coincidence.

Lastly, the environmental damage being caused is starting to threaten not just individuals but communities too. Even though the UK government is a signatory of many climate change agreements, we struggle to see how taking account of the risks of climate change has been translated into UK domestic law or caused public sector bodies to change their assessments of the activities they regulate

A classic example is Lincoln’s new eastern bypass. Ironically it now has a delayed opening due to the extreme floods earlier this year, one symptom of an ever warming world. Bypasses, according to accepted wisdom, supposedly take traffic away from town centres. However the reality is that they quickly become choked and congested through  ‘induced demand’. This is exemplified by Lincoln’s western bypass, built in the 1980s to alleviate years of through traffic. For some years now, that original bypass has been unable to cope with increased traffic volumes. Local people now eagerly expect that the nearly completed eastern bypass will solve all the area’s traffic ills, ignoring the fact that it will stimulate unsustainable growth, and will in turn become congested. Nor will any thought be given to the CO2 produced in its construction, or by the vehicles using them. The impact on public health, as well as climate change, seems not to have been considered by our local politicians.

I believe we are approaching a point where the results of our society’s addiction to cars means it’s now time to start talking about ‘harm reduction’ to help people’s health and the environment. But as so much of our economic life is focused around cars – their production, ownership and role in everyday life – no one wants to suggest that society has become hopelessly hooked and is unwilling to kick its habit.

I expect little will change in the foreseeable future. Lincolnshire, like the rest of the UK, cannot imagine a future without cars or a reduction in their use. Nor will national or local politicians be keen to ‘travel that road’. Awareness of the threats of climate change in a predominately flat, low-lying landscape bordered by the North Sea, such as Lincolnshire, may only be raised once flooding makes areas uninhabitable and local people become climate change refugees. The safety of us all is being imperilled by politicians who lack an understanding of the changing world around them. Like latter day King Canutes, they clearly don’t have the supernatural powers to hold back the tide, so in the process they will allow us all to be washed away.

Lincolnshire road accident statistics 2019 sources 

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/ras10-reported-road-accidents

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/ras60-average-value-of-preventing-road-accidents