Capitalism’s car culture

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The deaths caused by cars in Britain since 1945 outnumber the deaths of British soldiers during the Second World War. The annual carnage on Britain’s roads is equivalent to 30 commercial aircraft crashes. Motor vehicle traffic accidents account for nearly half of all accidental injury fatalities in children in Britain. Children from the most disadvantaged families, with inadequate play facilities and more traffic exposure, are five times as likely to be killed on the roads. Each month 268 children die or are seriously hurt in road traffic accidents. Each week six under 18-year-olds die. Each day in Britain, on average nine people are killed and over 100 are seriously injured. In 2001, road traffic accident casualties in Britain were 313,309 of whom 3,450 were killed and 37,110 seriously injured. The media underplays these dangers and directs us to concentrate on specific tragedies (for example, the Paddington rail crash, 31 killed) or to exaggerate other dangers to children (the average number of children abducted or killed by strangers per year in Britain is seven).

Car culture is out of control in Britain: the rising volume of traffic is associated with a subsequent increase in pollution, accidents and congestion. If all cars in Britain in 1998/1999 were lined up nose to tail, they would go around the world twice. There has been a decrease in children walking and cycling to school and an equivalent increase in car journeys. Car travel accounted for four fifths of the total distance travelled in Britain in 1999/2001 with 60 to 84 per cent only having one occupant. Britain has the lowest cycle use per person in Europe.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced wide changes to the sentencing powers of the courts and established the Sentencing Guidelines Council to promote clarity and consistency in sentencing across the country. The Act increased the maximum sentence for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving, causing death by careless driving whilst intoxicated and aggravated vehicle theft where the aggravating feature is causing death, from ten to 14 years. Note that death caused by driving offences is not considered manslaughter in Britain; very rarely, very serious cases can carry the charge of culpable homicide. The concept of suspension from driving is virtually ignored in the law. Once their sentence is over, most motorists who have killed can very soon drive again.

Air pollution causes 12-24,000 premature deaths per year in Britain. It plays a part in childhood asthma and respiratory disease and has been implicated as one possible contributory factor in sudden infant death syndrome.

It is widely agreed that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 60% by 2050 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Between 1990 and 2002, greenhouse gas emissions from British road freight rose 59%. Road transport causes one fifths of Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions and the improvement in fuel efficiency for individual vehicles is balanced out by the growth in traffic volume. At the 1997 Kyoto summit, industrialised countries agreed to cut overall emissions of carbon dioxide by 5% by 2012. The agreement in Bonn in 2001 by about 180 countries will lead to a cut in levels by just 2%. As part of the European Emission Trading Scheme, trade in carbon credits and debits has developed and companies can buy ‘spare’ emission capacity from other bigger companies whose emissions are below their suggested levels.

The average carbon dioxide emission in grammes of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre is: plane 330, car 114, bus 77 and rail 73. Moving a tonne of freight by rail produces 80% less carbon dioxide than moving it by road.

Public transport
Public transport fares in Britain are the third most expensive in Europe and the bus services in Britain receive less government subsidy than in any other country in the EU. With respect to fatalities per passenger kilometre, buses, coaches and trains in Britain are seven times safer than cars.

A double-decker bus carries the same number of people as 20 fully laden cars and a double track urban railway can move 30,000 people per hour in each direction compared to a two-lane road which can only move 3,000-6,000 people per hour in each direction. Bus mileage in London is currently higher than at any time since 1960s and the growth in London, Brighton, York and Southend has masked falls elsewhere. Figures for Britain show that 89% of British households have a bus stop within six minutes walk of their home and half the British population are within 30 minutes walk of a train station. However, in 1998/99 52% of households had access only to one bus per hour and ten per cent have no daily service.

The real cost of motoring has stayed the same since 1975 while the real cost of public transport has risen by 50-80 per cent. In capitalism’s endless need to search for more profits, satisfying the multinationals which dominate the oil, car and road lobbies is more important than people’s health and safety.
Hannah Caller

FRFI 183 February / March 2005