Monday, January 19, 2009

keep death off the roads

Last summer, in what may or may not have been called Operation Fish-Barrel, police were on the southbound M5 looking for cars going to Glastonbury and searching them for drugs. Two people who got caught with their stash were given 12 months in jail.

Taking drugs at Glastonbury, those guys were no real danger to anyone but themselves, and even then their biggest injury risk would probably be sore ribs from hugging each other too hard.

It can be argued that they knew the law and chose to break it so should be prepared to take it on the chin.

Except that the same thing's true of speeding drivers. I have to wonder, in the time the police were searching that car on the motorway, how many speeding drivers were going past?

The same cops were ignoring the speeders in order to catch a smaller number of criminals whose crime, more importantly, was less of a threat to innocent people.

As a society we have decided that the enormous threat from cars is worth the death they cause, but not the smaller threat from taking recreational drugs.

As John B says

If something provides sufficient net quantities of fun, it is easy to see that we do rate it as worth the death of one or several innocent people. How’s that? Easy. Such beneficial-only-because-fun activities that kill the innocent and non-consenting as funfairs, fast cars, aviation, skateboarding, allowing men out at night, swimming pools and serving margarine to kids are both legal and socially acceptable.

Hence, society (here meaning 'everyone who is capable of even the most basic level of moral debate') agrees that if enough fun is provided, the deaths for fun trade-off is acceptable. The only moral question left is over the necessary fun-to-killing ratio.

But still, we limit the fun. There are safety laws around dangerous items such as guns, funfairs, swimming pools and motor cars. Those who flout them are greeted with public opprobrium, with the curious exception of speeders. Those same Mail-Express newspapers that use the word 'criminal' to imply a total lack of personal worth are ferocious in their defence of the criminal activity speeding.

Witness the recent hoo-hah about the Commission for Integrated Transport’s report into the use of speed limiters, a sat-nav system that knows where speed limits are and makes your car obey them.

For several years trucks have been limited to 56mph, with a resultant drop in accidents. Why not extend this to cars? The Commission says we could introduce them voluntarily – maybe offering incentives such as a reduction in car tax – and see how we get on.

The evidence is certainly compelling. Mandatory speed limiters would reduce injury accidents by 29%. It would be most effective on roads that have cyclists and pedestrians. In other words, this isn’t about taking away people’s right to risk their own safety; it’s about reducing their ability to injure others.

That statistic conversely means that it would affect accident reduction less on motorways. However, there it has a different reduction in the deadly effects of cars. Whilst obeying speed limits on normal roads would deliver no real difference in CO2 emissions, if motorway drivers stuck to going under 70mph they'd reduce their carbon emissions by around 6%.

The AA attacked the idea, with their president Edmund King saying

Many may worry that a voluntary Government system may lead to a Big Brother compulsory system that tracks us as well as our speed.

Sorry, but since March 2006 they've been doing exactly that. CCTV cameras across the country are networked, covering all motorways and main roads as well as towns, cities, ports and filling station forecourts. The system reads 35 million number plates a day and stores the details for two years on a police computer.

But the AA and the other motorist groups didn't make a fuss about that. It's not the surveillance they fear, it's the fines. It's not about our collective liberty, just the motorists' money.

More to the point, the limiters can and do work without any logging technology. It does not mean an increase in government surveillance.

The Daily Mail tories hate speed cameras calling them 'a blatant tax on the motorist'.

Well yes, as they target motor vehicles they tax some motorists. However, as they only target speeding vehicles they are a more accurately a tax on motoring crime. Fines for speeding are no more a general tax on motorists than fines for headbutting are a tax on people with foreheads.

Speed cameras are installed where there have been several serious accidents. Their primary purpose is not to catch speeding motorists and tax them, it is to discourage drivers from speeding through blackspots. That is why they usually have bloody great big signs warning a driver as they approach.

Personally, I think this has a default of ceding the rest of the road network to speeding. I don't see why they don't have a vast amount of hidden speed cameras elsewhere. Those who obey speed limits would never be penalised. As the Conservatives always say when infringing liberties, the innocent have nothing to fear.

In those circumstances the politicians are usually bringing in some anti-terrorist legislation. As the brilliant performance poet Danny Chivers has pointed out - in rhyme, no less - Mount Snowden kills as many people as terrorism. Whereas in the UK cars kill as many people as the 7/7 bombings every week. Even the appalling massive toll of the Madrid bombings pales when you find out that the same number of Spaniards are killed by cars every ten days.

Infringing on the right to criminally kill cyclists, pedestrians and other road users is something I can live with.


peter said...

But fairly often there will be a death at Glastonbury festival due to an overdose. Probably more often than somebody would die in a speeding collision in Somerset while people are on their way to the festival.

So if you're looking it purely on public safety grounds, it's reasonable for the police to target dealers.

merrick said...

Peter, I'm tempted to be flippant and say there's been more Glastonbury births than deaths, whereas motorway pile-ups don't have a net gain in human life.

But yes, you're right that there's probably a major difference in numbers of deaths per day in Glastonbury than deaths per day on Somerset motorways due to speeding.

However, drug dealers don't kill people the way speeding drivers do. The dealers supply the means of killing to people who take a small, conscious risk to their own health. In that, they're no more guilty than travel agents who sell ski-ing holidays.

The victims of speeders didn't choose for the speeder to do it.

So, as I said above, it's about the difference between the right to risk your own health and the right to risk someone else's.

And just a word on the particular case mentioned in the post. Whilst those guys were convicted of intent to supply, it was accepted in court that they had pooled funds with a couple of friends and the only 'supply' intended was to those friends.

Fucking their lives over - they'll lose jobs, be banned from all sorts of future employment - as well as costing the state a six figure sum is hardly proportionate or justifiable.