Who's to blame for tragedies of the car?

Brian Martin

Written in July 2000. Unpublished


Only occasionally do traffic accidents make big headlines. The story about Ella James, killed at a school crossing near Bulli [a Wollongong suburb], is an exception. So is the story about seven young men who died in two car crashes recently.

Train and air crashes get much more attention, such as the Glenbrook rail disaster. Yet just as many people are killed on the roads every week. This appalling human tragedy is largely unnoticed except by those close to the victims.

Some time ago I saw a beautiful home which had been especially designed for one of the family members who had suffered serious permanent physical and intellectual disabilities as a result of a car crash years ago. The young adult's large room had special facilities for wheelchair access. This was made possible by a large pay-out.

The mother of an acquaintance was in an automobile accident and spent weeks fighting for her life. Rehabilitation will take years but she may never walk again. The pressure on the family, both emotional and financial, is enormous.

The human costs of the car due to trauma, suffering, disability and death are staggering. The economic costs are enormous too but in many cases no amount of money can compensate for loss of health and life. It is hard to find someone whose family or friends have not been affected by tragedies of the car.

Humans seek to find meaning in their experiences, so what sense can be made of these horrific events? One attitude is to say it is just fate or bad luck. But a more common response is to find someone to blame.

The immediate target is drivers, especially if they are legally at fault. Bad driving can be due to inattention, recklessness, tiredness, distraction and a host of other factors.

Drinking driving is seen as especially culpable. Usually the driver is blamed, but sometimes responsibility is placed on friends who ply the person with drink and allow them to drive.

But not every accident can so easily be blamed on drivers. There are patches of road that are notorious for accidents. The surface might be slippery, visibility might be poor or the speed limit too high. Poor roads and traffic systems can be blamed. The RTA [Roads and Traffic Authority in New South Wales] was widely blamed for Ella James' death.

Then there is the car itself. Sometimes brakes fail, tyres blow or corners are not handled as well as they should be. Failures can be sheeted home to manufacturers or repairers.

Are cars safe enough? Manufacturers were slow in introducing safety features such as airbags, and prefer to sell vehicles on the basis of power and style rather than safety. What is the price of life and health?

It is all very well to blame drivers, drinking, roads and cars, but what about the transportation system itself? It's well known that travelling by train, bus or plane is far safer per kilometre than travelling by car.

It's possible to design cities so that automobile use is dramatically reduced. People would live closer to work and amenities so that walking or cycling is easy. Public transport would be convenient and cheap. The result: far fewer injuries and deaths.

But does it make much sense to blame the transportation system? Should we blame transport planners or politicians? The system is so entrenched and widely accepted that blame may be the wrong approach.

The fact is that for most people it is extremely inconvenient not to have a car. A family with children in the suburbs is marooned without a car, and two or even three may seem a necessity.

Do we blame everyone who drives for using a potentially dangerous technology? That wouldn't go down well. Even when tragedy strikes a family, members keep using their cars. They feel they have no alternative.

Would you put up with a life without a car if you could prevent a death or injury to someone close to you? This is an unfair question, because people don't really have this option. The alternative of a low-car-use society is hypothetical in Australia. Most people get on with life in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Rather than get stuck in the blaming mode, perhaps a better approach is to think in terms of policy options. What sort of transport system would be most effective in reducing human suffering and death? How can we move towards such alternatives?

If we stop blaming and focus on policy options, then it's possible to say, "I have to drive but I support policies to promote public transport, make walking and cycling more attractive, and make drivers pay the full cost of car use."

Assessment of policy options also needs to take into account other factors such as environmental impact, congestion, land use and mobility for nondrivers. But the human tragedies of the car are a good place to start.

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