Monday, 12 September 2011

Some thoughts on 9/11

Few people will have got through yesterday without being reminded of the event 10 years ago that has changed so much of our history in the first decade of the 21st century. The killing of nearly 3,000 people in a few hours in the terrorist attack on the United States both directly affected so many families of not just US workers but also foreign nationals who were victims, but also was a call to action to governments around the world to change their domestic and foreign security policies. It was an affront to democracy and the civil liberties which so many of us hold dearly.

We are all shocked by the carnage and more so because we see the images on our screens and feel for the people involved. We respect and honour their memory.

There has been much analysis and discussion since then. Western powers have been involved in wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. We have seen further terrorist attacks in London, Bali and Madrid as well as a huge loss of life in the Middle East.

The world is indeed a changed place since 9/11. With hindsight we can see so many connected issues :- Palestine, Suni/Shia sectarianism, US presence in Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda, the “fog of war”, “collateral damage”, “hate crimes”, the instability created in the financial markets, “the Arab Spring”, etc.
And through all of these we see a commodity lurking in the background – Oil. Of course no one directly connects all of these events to the Western demand for oil as energy, but it certainly seems to be implicated in most of these issues.

Personally, I do not have the knowledge or the expertise to make finer judgments on theses connection. But my role as a Road Danger Reduction advocate means that I am aware of some outcomes that really do require consideration. I wonder if you know how many people have died on US roads in the last 10 years since the nearly 3,000 deaths of 9/11. Would it be 10,000? That would be terrible. What if it were 50,000?... or even 100,000!!!

Well the actual figure was over 390,000 people (1). All of these violent deaths came to members of US communities and all of their families were devastated by the loss of their loved ones.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to belittle the events of 9/11 or say that the event was one which we should ignore or put on some lesser level than road deaths. Nor is it any criticism of the US, its people or government. But it does show in stark reality that as communities we are sensitised to certain events and desensitised to others. The fact that those 390,000 deaths were distributed across all states and over 10 years means that the steady “drip of deaths” is not big news or a single event.

And we see similar discrepancies in the UK. We all respect the people of Wooton Bassett when they have paid their respects to the dead servicemen as they return to their homeland. And 558 have died in fighting for our values and security. Brave men and women who do what we choose not to, but do so on our behalf. In that same 10 year period 27,000 have died on our UK roads. Maybe if we could route all of those 27,000 funerals through one small town then we would see the carnage on our roads differently.

But, as I have said, this is not a claim to belittle the suffering from 9/11 either here or across the world. But if we consider the way in which governments have responded to the events of 9/11. The huge efforts and cost that went into the ensuing strategies, policies and actions, then one wonders why we cannot do the same for the way in which we share our roads. If “motorism” is the “addiction to or practice of motoring” then what is the “cost of motorism” for our communities. In the UK the Dept for Transport estimate each death as costing our community £1.4m or $2.2m. That’s a total cost in the US of $858,000,000,000 over the last 10 years. And of course you can probably multiply that by 5 or 10 times to take account of the far larger number of non fatal injuries and damage only collisions.

In our Northern European neighbours they have both lower casualty rates and far more vulnerable road users as cyclists and pedestrians on their roads. In Sweden they have their “Vision Zero” strategy which recognises that every road death is avoidable and are constantly re-assessing what they need to do in order to deliver that vision. They know that whilst lowers speeds are not the sole answer they are a necessity if their strategies are to be convincing and successful. In Britain our default residential and urban roads have a speed limit of 30mph which is 60% higher than their 18.5mph (30 kph). They also have “stricter liability” laws which help address the imbalance of protection between vulnerable road users and motor vehicles. They also put real funds into protecting vulnerable road users through adequate and well designed pedestrian and cycle facilities.

Its time that our governments in both the UK and around the world recognise that whilst we do and should take care to protect ourselves against malicious attacks from enemies and terrorists, we should be equally aware that the lives lost through our “addiction to motoring” are just as tragic, and somehow the fact that no-one intends for them to happen makes them even more so. We need leadership and action. We need to “normalise” our relationship with the motor vehicle. We need to recognise that “speed becomes greed” when it takes away the choice for others to walk or cycle without fear. It does not mean banning motor vehicles and certainly is not anti-motorist. But it does recognise that we need to re-assess the whole way in which we use our public spaces for transport.

Some have made comments about governments who show the slightest regard to enforced behaviour change as being evidence of a “war on motorists”. Others have pointed out that fining law breakers, taxing fuel and paying for parking hardly registers on the scale of “wars or persecutions” as they really exist around the world.

So whilst there never was a “war on the motorist”, maybe its time that we did start a “war on motorism”. Our governments should use this anniversary, not only to recognise the loss of life and freedom that have come from the events of 9/11 but also to recognise that there is an issue within our communities that causes death and destruction on an appalling scale and requires addressing with the same vigour, commitment and resolution that we have shown in response to those events.

(1) National Highway Traffic safety Administration