Sunday 21 September 2008

Who killed Finlay Woods?

Katie Gutierruez-Perez is the obvious answer.

But there’s a wider context of responsibility, which I think no journalist, politician or police officer will be at all interested in discussing.

The vehicle which killed Finlay in his pram was a Toyota Land Cruiser. The price of a new one starts at £56,150. (So if you see someone in a Toyota Land Cruiser chatting on a mobile you shouldn’t be too surprised that someone who can spend fifty grand on their vehicle couldn’t give a toss about the prospect of a £60 fine.)

Channel Four admires the way the Land Cruiser is designed for toughness and durability and for coping with the world's most difficult terrains. In other words, nobody in London needs to drive one of these monsters. But the government has done nothing at all to discourage their use in totally unsuitable urban environments (either by an outright ban or through punitive taxation).

The corporate mass media often has investments in motoring publications as well as newspapers, and all newspapers derive substantial advertising revenue from 4X4 companies. All daily papers employ motoring correspondents, who celebrate gas guzzlers and illegal speeds. Supposedly liberal papers like the Independent and the Guardian are just as much committed to motor porn as the gutter press. Reviewing the Toyota Land Cruiser in the Sunday Times, Gavin Conway praised it as ‘the unstoppable one’:

As we descend from the brow of the hill we are effectively in free fall. All the antilock braking, traction control and we'll-take-care-of-it-sir software in the world won't stop the Toyota from head-butting the earth's crust. Big time. And it does.

But it's hardly surprising. We are on a course designed to take the new Land Cruiser to the edge of its capabilities. It is Toyota's way of reminding us that the 51-year-old Land Cruiser legend has been built on its ability to keep going regardless.

Nearly 4m have been sold globally and it has been exported to 127 countries — including China, where it is called Shamowang, or King of the Desert. In Latin America the imaginative locals call it El Macho.

What’s more the latest Land Cruiser is

much more refined. At 80mph wind, road and mechanical noise are remarkably low for such a big machine. The performance from the 161bhp turbodiesel is also up to the task — 0 to 62mph in 12.7sec, 106mph top speed — and all that low-rev poke delivers a relaxed drive.

Even the BBC (an institution which is no friend of cyclists, pedestrians or safe roads) gives the Land Cruiser a plug.

The road lobby, in other words, is keen to see many more Toyota Land Cruisers on our roads. In the London Borough of Waltham Forest Councillors Clyde Loakes and Bob Belam are also working towards this objective, by converting more and more pavements to car parks in order to accommodate residents who choose to acquire larger and larger cars but have nowhere else to park them but the street.

The mis-use of Toyota Land Cruisers, like any other vehicle on the road, is also encouraged by the continuing fall in the numbers of traffic police and the increasing laxity of enforcement. Policing these days is target driven and here the government is at fault:

Roads policing activity, like other aspects of police operations, is open to public scrutiny. Currently it has two specific performance indicators within the Policing Performance Assessment Framework (numbers killed and seriously injured compared with vehicle kilometres travelled and satisfaction with the way incidents are dealt with, including for victims of road traffic collisions).

Those are grossly inadequate ways of measuring what is in reality a disastrous failure in policing our roads. Law and order has effectively broken down on our roads but no politician or senior police officer is particularly concerned.

The number of traffic police in England and Wales fell from 7,525 in 1999 to 6,511 in 2006, a reduction of 13 per cent.

The number of breath tests carried out fell from 765,000 in 1999 to 578,000 in 2004.

There is also the historic reality that the police have always been reluctant to enforce traffic law. In November 1998 no less a person than Paul Manning, Chairman of Traffic Committee, The Association of Chief Police Officers, expressed his anxiety about what he saw as an unacceptable extension of speed limits:

Traditionally, speed limits have been imposed and enforced on the grounds of road safety and have, by and large, been accepted by the public on that basis. The penalty of driving licence endorsement, and ultimately disqualification, has also traditionally only been applied to "unsafe" practices on the road. The potential broadening of the reasons for the imposition of speed limits to include environmental and traffic management purposes e.g., tyre noise pollution, to support cycling strategies, for environmental and social objectives needs very careful consideration if acceptance by the public is to be retained. (source)

This is a classic statement of the confusion and prejudice which informs policing of our roads at the very highest levels. Note that as far as Manning is concerned ‘the public’ does not include cyclists.

Such attitudes continue to the present day. Later this year the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation are hosting a conference on ‘Roads Policing – the Wider Picture.’ (PDF) Among the speakers is Mike Farmer, Regional Director, Road Haulage Association. There is no one representing cyclists or pedestrians - but then the police have never been very interested in enforcing laws which protect these vulnerable groups. There are no speakers from RoadPeace or Brake. The ‘wider picture’ of this conference will in fact be very narrow indeed.

The problem with road policing is twofold. Partly there is the historic reluctance to enforce road traffic law. But nowadays this is not entirely the fault of the police. In a target driven culture the government has done nothing to challenge the disastrous failure to enforce road traffic law. ACPO argues that

the Government is to blame for the decline in traffic officers because it has failed to include traffic offences in the targets by which forces are judged. Med Hughes, head of roads policing at the ACPO and Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, said that the Government had failed to make a financial commitment to support its words on road safety. “We have had additional money for robbery initiatives, burglary, antisocial behaviour, domestic violence, but never for road casualty reduction.”Mr Hughes said that Home Office targets required police to devote resources to petty crime rather than catching dangerous drivers. “We have been calling for over two years for drink-driving and driving while disqualified to be given the same status in our policing statistics as the theft of a Kit Kat from a corner shop.”

Incredibly, the Met yesterday announced a further reduction in its traffic police.

Knife crime has overtaken terrorism as the No 1 priority for the Metropolitan Police, one of Britain’s most senior officers said yesterday. Deputy Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson announced the formation of a special knife-crime unit to address the recent spate of fatal stabbings in London as he admitted that moves to stop teenagers carrying weapons were not working. The dedicated 75-strong task force will be made up of officers from the Territorial Support Group, traffic and dog sections and specialist detectives. Earlier this year, Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, had said that only terrorism posed a greater threat than youth violence to London. Sir Paul’s announcement came after a 16-year-old boy became the eighteenth teenager to die a violent death in the capital this year. There were 26 youth murders in 2007.

In reality the greatest established threat to Londoners comes not from terrorists or youths with knives but from drivers.

Terrorists and youths with knives are pathetic underachievers compared with motorists.

In 2007 in London there were 23,210 collisions, which resulted in 28,361 casualties Of these, 222 were fatally injured, 3,562 were seriously injured, and 24,577 were slightly injured. 331 children (under 16) were ‘fatal or serious’.

[source [PDF format]

Don’t expect any discussion of this in our media. Pedestrians will continue to die on Britain’s pavements, hit by reckless drivers who 'lose control'. Cyclists will continue to be run down or crushed by reckless and inattentive drivers. Business as usual.