Banning cars is as realistic as banning kitchen knives – John McLellan

The Scottish Government and others hoping to eradicate fatal road accidents must beware unintended consequences, writes John McLellan

Flowers are laid at the scene in Morningside Road, Edinburgh, where a car crashed, killing a three-year-old boy (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
Flowers are laid at the scene in Morningside Road, Edinburgh, where a car crashed, killing a three-year-old boy (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

Like most parents in my bit of South Edinburgh, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stopped with the kids to peer into the window of Toys Galore on Morningside Road. Even though our youngest is now 15, after coming out of the Turkish hot-shave barber I can’t resist a quick look to see what Lego is in vogue.

Until recently, it was a happy place, with a steady flow of children of all ages choosing treats, or parents and grandparents paying a visit to pick a present. After this week, for years to come it will also be remembered as the scene of unspeakable tragedy, after a car driven by a 91-year-old lady struck and killed three-year-old Xander Irvine when he was on the pavement just along from the shop with his mum.

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare and my heart goes out to the poor family as they try to come to terms with their dreadful loss. While details are scant, the apparently random nature of the accident means that split seconds either side could have produced a very different outcome and we would instead have been reading about a miracle escape. I will not have been alone in thinking about the hundreds of times we’ve walked past or stopped at that very spot with one or other of our three, and wondered what if. It is, of course, absolutely no comfort to the Irvine family that this was an appalling chance in a million.

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At a time when road closures and car bans are high on the capital’s political agenda, this incident along with the equally tragic death of 36-year-old cyclist James Harrison last week and a further accident in the Southside on Monday morning in which a 24-year-old cyclist was injured, have been used as evidence that a crackdown on car use in Edinburgh is long overdue, and it’s undeniable that more can always be done.

And in an era of angry protest, be it Scottish independence, Brexit, climate change and Black Lives Matter, often all four rolled into one, road safety and car use is up there too, and the bike accidents in the past ten days have sparked a new campaign led by cycling activists which unashamedly puts anger at its heart.

It’s impossible to deny that public streets should be as safe as possible for everyone to use, no matter their means of transport, but even an outright ban on motorised vehicles will not completely remove the risk of an unforeseen tragic accident.

Yet in October last year Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson set his Government the goal of eradicating all road deaths. “Road deaths are not an inevitability and they should not be expected to happen,” he said. “We are committed to working with our partners to secure the ultimate vision... where no one is killed on our roads.” As this week tragically demonstrated, it will remain a vision because no government can control all eventualities, and while the impossibility of complete risk removal is not an excuse to do nothing, without realism such pronouncements become meaningless virtue-signalling.

As far as fatalities are concerned, Britain’s roads are actually third top of the world road safety league with 27.6 road deaths per million people in 2018. Topping the table is Norway (20.4) where success has been a combination of factors including speed reduction, and compulsory roads education at primary and secondary level, but also motorway building and more central barriers. Sadly, Scotland had 30 per million, 161 in total, although the rate of non-fatal severe accidents was 28 per cent lower than England and Wales. Strangely, some anger in Edinburgh this week was directed at Conservative councillors despite the SNP having control of transport at both local and national level. The most up-to-date accidental death figures only go as far as 2018 and Department for Transport figures show there were 48 serious accidents involving pedestrians with four deaths, and no fatalities in the 25 serious cycling accidents, on Edinburgh roads. In Glasgow there were six deaths in 80 serious pedestrian accidents and none in 27 serious cycling incidents, while in Aberdeen two pedestrians died in 24 serious accidents and of seven serious cycling accidents there were no deaths. It was a similar picture in Dundee where one pedestrian died out of 12 serious accidents and there were three non-fatal serious cycling accidents. Perhaps reflecting lower bike use, Dundee had only one cyclist death from 63 serious accidents in the 14 years to 2018, compared to 12 from 452 in Edinburgh, which explains why the capital’s cycling lobby is so determined.

Behind every sudden fatality is a grieving family but with each accident unique no single change like compulsory seat-belts is likely to significantly reduce the death toll and even policies like Edinburgh’s blanket 20mph speed limit cannot guarantee death-free roads.

At the extreme end, the silver bullet is a total car ban, even electric ones, and while the environmental benefits of moving away from petrol and diesel are clear the end of private motoring is no more practical than outlawing kitchen knives to prevent murders. No-one would seriously argue for that, but in 2018-19 25 people were stabbed to death out of 61 homicides, compared to 30 pedestrians and six cyclists killed on Scottish roads in 2018. Education and effective policing has been the key to violence reduction, not draconian restrictions on the general population.

Road safety improvements and law changes cannot prevent criminality, as shown by the death of 33-year-old nurse Jill Pirrie while walking home along Edinburgh’s Old Dalkeith Road four years ago, a young mother hit by a teenage driver trying to evade police.

Nor can the law mitigate for human error and road deaths should be put in the context of all accidental deaths. According to the National Records of Scotland, the most common cause in 2018 was accidental poisoning, accounting for 1,146 deaths including drug overdoses and alcohol, closely followed by 942 fatal falls. The 178 deaths linked to transport accidents were only seven per cent of the total.

Analysing the data has unfortunate echoes of Stalin’s 1947 pronouncement, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”. But as with the Covid-19 response, policy can only be built on an understanding of the context and the unintended consequences of chasing an absolute goal.

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