Saturday 29 May 2010

A doctor writes…

The car skidded and I ran into both of them. The child flew through the air, caught in the beam of my headlights. I didn't see the adult.

Traffic stopped behind me and on the other side of the road ahead of me. For a few seconds everything was still. The child, who looked about three years old, was crying in a heap a few yards in front of my car; the adult had been thrown further.

So what has this experience done to me? Suddenly, a few speeding points on my licence don't seem quite so innocent. If you have any, you should also feel ashamed. It is easy to exceed the speed limit and, thankfully, on this occasion, I wasn't. Nor was I fiddling with my mobile phone, sat-nav, or CD player, all of which I have done before.

I think I was going at 20mph at the point of impact, and maybe now you will agree with me that that should be the speed limit in built-up areas.

Dr Nick Foreman is a GP from Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. This article is published in this week's British Medical Journal

Well top marks to Dr Foreman for owning up and writing about his experience. But let me enter some caveats.

His emphasis is on reconstructing the urban environment to curb the lawless and reckless behaviour of drivers - behaviour he himself admits to engaging in. His emphasis is not on deterring bad driving in other ways, for example by taking away a driver's licence. At present speeding and using a mobile phone are treated by the judicial system as mere trifles, meriting three penalty points and a small fine. Professionals such as doctors and police officers are permitted to clock up motoring convictions without anyone regarding them as fundamentally irresponsible.

Had the doctor's collision taken place in a 20 mph zone, what difference would it have made? The crash would still have occurred.

He ‘thinks’ he was doing 20 mph but doesn’t really know and admits he has convictions for speeding. If by law his car had been fitted with a black box we’d know his precise speed. Technology has, potentially, a very big part to play in reducing road carnage but the core reality is that all governments regard the catastrophic extent of driver violence as perfectly acceptable, to be ameliorated only in the most peripheral ways. The road and car lobby continue to shape the parameters of that ineffectual blood-drenched ideology known as ‘road safety’.

UK road casualty figures decline overall only because fewer and fewer people are walking and cycling, more and more people are driving, cars now offer massive protection to their occupants (airbags, rigid steel safety cages) and modern medicine is much more efficient at saving the lives of badly injured people.

The medical profession is deeply implicated in road carnage. It has never taken any serious steps to combat what is an epidemic and the NHS itself is in the hands of drug addicts in thrall to fossil fuel. The extent of car dependency at all local NHS sites in Waltham Forest is phenomenal, matched by a contempt and institutional hostility to cycling and walking. I laugh hollowly when the latest cycling froth from Transport for London talks about working in partnership with the NHS. Instead of more leaflets telling people to ride bicycles, the NHS needs to address its own serious car sickness.

If Dr Foreman had been suspended as a doctor when he was convicted of speeding he might well have become a much safer driver. But doctors, like police officers, can clock up motoring convictions and continue with their work.

The problem with 20 mph zones is that they rarely keep speeds down to that level. It depends on the kind of traffic calming employed, which has very variable results. If you want to do 40 mph in Walthamstow’s Church Hill 20 mph zone there is nothing to stop you, other than a driver ahead who is going slower.

20 mph zones are effective in cutting fatalities and serious injuries but do not in themselves make streets pedestrian and cycling friendly. Waltham Forest has a number of 20 mph zones but cycling in them is not a pleasant experience because you are basically cycling down a metal canyon lined on both sides with parked cars. This brings you into conflict with approaching drivers, who rarely give way when they are on the cyclist’s side of the middle white line, or puts you into conflict with aggressive and impatient drivers determined to pass a cyclist, even though you are cycling at 20 mph.

Dr Foreman ought to try cycling. His consciousness has developed but, as it used to say on my skool reports, there is room for improvement.