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Exhibition Road: No Terrorist, No Story?

11/10/2017 12:11
TOLGA AKMEN via Getty Images

For two hours on Saturday afternoon central London was gripped by terror. Well it was if you watched Farage on Fox News, or followed Hopkins on social media. Then, the police said that they were treating it as an ordinary traffic incident, Hopkins deleted her appeals to tourists to avoid London and everyone heaved a collective sigh of relief. Except, there were still nine people who had to go to hospital and their injuries will be added to the annual statistics of over 160,000 slight injuries a year.

A lot of attention has focused on the scaremongering of Farage saying that the police were 'clearly' treating it as a terrorist incident, or Hopkins, who complained bitterly of bias in the state media (that's the BBC to you and me) because of the neutral tone of their headline coverage. Yes, they are vultures and yes, they got it wrong, but why does the lack of a 'terrorist' diminish how seriously we treat the threat of vehicles being driven badly, or aggressively and above all, lawlessly. I could fill several newspapers with stories of drivers deliberately using their vehicles as weapons, or with drivers mounting pavements to kill pedestrians. They are everyday stories, spread throughout towns and cities all over the country.

If you think that I'm now scaremongering about lawless roads, then consider the 16,550 hit and runs involving a death and injury in 2016. In the three days since people reportedly pinned the Exhibition Road driver down as he tried to run off, around 135 people have been injured in a hit and run in England and Wales. You won't have read about that. It happens too often to report any but the worse cases.

When Hopkins compared Exhibition Road with the Las Vegas shooting in order to reject gun controls "Come on let's hear it. You want to ban cars. That's how it works, right?" My response was, yes, please. Why not ban traffic from Exhibition Road and many other public spaces where lots of people gather. It must be a better idea than the current layout of Exhibition Road, where the council spent £3m on the disastrous implementation of shared space, giving pedestrians the right to assert themselves by wandering along, making eye contact with vehicles travelling at the speed they would go on most London roads and daring the drivers to plough into them.

True accidents on our roads are very rare. Most of the time people are being killed or injured because of bad design, bad rules, or inadequate enforcement. Whatever you read or heard in the media, the Metropolitan Police did not refer to this, or any other crash as an 'accident'. They use collision, or incident because they want to investigate it first.

As a country, we have put a lot of money into countering terrorism in the last few years and each terrorist incident fuels the requests for more. As a result, the government has assured us that the terrorism budget will be austerity proof. Meanwhile, deaths and serious injuries on our roads receive relatively little coverage and as a result, the number of traffic police has declined rapidly since 2010. The number of deaths on our roads has started going up for the first time in years and I think austerity is to blame. There is definitely a connection between the rise in hit and runs and the 32% decline in their successful prosecution. We have an epidemic on our hands and it is illustrative of the wider issue of drivers getting away with everything from drink driving to using mobile phones.

So, the next time that a driver collides with shoppers, or tourists, or a group of cyclists and it turns out that they are not a terrorist, can we resist that collective shrug of the shoulders? Can we instead take some of the energy and passion we give to terrorist incidents and apply it to solving the crisis on our roads? Why not ban vehicles from busy public spaces, reverse the cuts to traffic policing and stop treating road deaths as inevitable? We could start by adopting the vision zero approach of Sweden who are aiming to eliminate death from their roads. Imagine that.

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