Thursday, June 30, 2005

Safe in the slow lane

New figures suggest deaths and injuries on the UK's roads are now the lowest since records began in 1926. So why all the anxiety about road safety?

According to the latest statistics from the Department for Transport (DfT), 3,221 people died on the roads in 2004. That's a decline of eight per cent on 2003, and a fall of 10 per cent on the average from 1994-98. In fact, the number of people killed or seriously injured has fallen by 28 per cent compared to the 1994-98 average - including a 43 per cent drop for children. Only among motorcyclists are the figures going up.

This is in spite of the fact that volumes of traffic continue to rise. There were roughly 300billion miles travelled in motor vehicles last year - that's one death every 93million miles travelled. A number of factors have had an effect here, including improvements to the way cars are built, and new road markings and layouts. Cars have also been increasingly restricted by speed bumps, speed cameras and the narrowing or removal of lanes.

But while Britain's roads are safer than ever, all we seem to hear about is the need to place even more restrictions on drivers, and outlaw 4x4s and sports-utility vehicles (SUVs). Meanwhile, average speeds seem to be falling because road building is not keeping pace with traffic increases. With serious accidents so rare, we should focus on the true purpose of our roads - getting from A to B as quickly as possible. It's time drivers put their foot down.

Road Casualties in Great Britain, Main Results: 2004, Department for Transport, June 2005 [pdf format]

Drivers: guilty as charged?, by Jennie Bristow

Monday, June 27, 2005

A costly identity crisis

Will the proposals for compulsory ID cards prove to be Tony Blair's poll tax?

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, thinks so. She argues that because of the cost, ID cards will prove to be extremely unpopular. 'Businesses and the unions hate them,' she said. 'Minority communities fear them. Nine out of 10 of us don't want to pay for them.' Recent reports suggest that buying your ID card is likely to be a very expensive business. The unit cost is estimated by the government to be £93, but figures from the London School of Economics put the unit cost nearer £300.

This emphasis on the cost of the cards is missing the point: the real problem with ID cards is they provide the state with the means and the authority to keep tabs on what we do in a way that undermines our privacy and freedom. There are parallels here with the rather feeble discussion about the monarchy. Rather than point out the anti-democratic nature of having someone rule us by accident of birth, critics are much happier to complain about Prince Andrew flying from one golf tournament to another at public expense.

While both the cards and the Crown seem to be expensive symbols that don't work, they do have one other common feature: they're both designed to remind us that we're British. Now the once-powerful monarchy can no longer cut it, spending a few billion pounds to give us a daily reminder of where we belong seems a small price to pay for an establishment desperate to create some common purpose. For the rest of us, it seems more like a costly experiment to find out what we know already: that the solution to Britain's national identity crisis won't fit on the back of a piece of plastic.

Badging the British, by Dolan Cummings

Monday, June 20, 2005

Giving potatoes a positive image

Should the term 'couch potato' be removed from the dictionary - because it is derogatory to potatoes?

That seems to be the message from a new campaign led by the British Potato Council (BPC). They've got a real chip on their shoulder about such a negative term being associated with their product, and want to replace it with 'couch slouch'.

'We are trying to get rid of the image that potatoes are bad for you', said Kathryn Race, head of marketing at the BPC. Which is fair enough - potatoes have plenty of vitamins and minerals and are by no means particularly fattening. Spuds have had a hard time of it lately, mashed between low-carbohydrate diets like Atkins and the half-baked food scares about fries promoted by Jamie Oliver and others. In fact, the term 'couch potato' is the least of the potato industry's worries - but you can't blame them for trying to get a bit of positive publicity.

But do the BPC really have to promote potatoes by appealing to the language of the offended minority? Perhaps they should demand a law banning 'incitement to root-vegetable hatred'. Or maybe they're concerned about the cost of therapy for all those traumatised spuds, giving a whole new meaning to the term 'couch potato'.

Couch potato label gives veg a bad name - farmers, Guardian, 20 June 2005

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Pedalling low horizons

Commuters in London waiting for delayed trains or overcrowded buses will appreciate the latest message from Transport for London: Have you thought about cycling?

To celebrate Bike Week, Transport for London (TfL) has been running a poster campaign to encourage people to get back on their bikes, in conjunction with a series of events designed to show how cool cycling really is. 'Cycling is cutting edge, urban, contemporary and stylish, as you'll see from a specially choreographed street dance (yes, you guessed it, performed on bikes!) and a cycling inspired fashion show.'

Even though I cycle regularly, I'm under no illusions that cycling is cutting edge. It's a century-old technology that should have been long since superseded. And there's nothing stylish about sweating into your workclothes after a long haul along London's streets. In fact, cycling is a piss-poor substitute for a proper modern transport system that many Londoners employ to get from A to B in some kind of predictable manner. And as for health...any small reduction in the risk of a heart attack is surely more than matched by the danger of being taken out by some more powerful motorised vehicle.

It is pretty annoying when environmental groups trumpet cycling as a positive transport option for the millions of workers coming into the capital daily. It is downright galling coming from the people responsible for the public transport system in one of the world's richest cities. But if mayor Ken Livingstone would like to encourage more cycling, perhaps he'd like to stop spending money on irritating posters and family-friendly events - and do some basic road repairs to the pothole-ridden, bone-shaking backstreets he's promoting as safe cycle routes.

BikeFest in the Square - Sunday 12 June 2005, Transport for London

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Japan in a sweat over climate change

The salarymen of Tokyo have been advised to say 'sayonara' to their suits for the next few months. With Kyoto targets to meet, it's going to be a long, hot summer in Japan.

The Japanese government has told businesses to turn down the air-conditioning because generating the necessary electricity has made it difficult for the country to cut carbon dioxide emissions. This is particularly embarrassing in the country where the Kyoto Treaty was negotiated. However, the consequences for the workers will be pretty severe, with office temperatures hitting 28 degrees Celsius.

To cope, the government suggests staff go for a new casual look at work, christened 'cool biz'. Already, prime minister Junichiro Koizumi has been leading by example, jettisoning his jacket and tie. While some may appreciate the informality, many others are apparently quite upset about it - but surely not as hot under their open collars as they will be when they begin to melt in the notoriously uncomfortable and humid summer months.

Anyone who suggests that meeting the Kyoto targets will be painless should perhaps discuss this point with a perspiring pen-pusher. How delighted will that sweaty worker be when they learn that Kyoto will, at best, postpone any temperature change by five or six years?

Japan vetoes suits in summer heat, BBC News, 1 June 2005